All signs are pointing to healthy ECHL
By Andrew Knoll, Daily Bulletin
Ontario – Go west, young fans. Go west.
The New Jersey-based ECHL quickly has expanded west with franchises such as the Reign making an immediate impact on the league’s visibility and profitability.
League commissioner Brian McKenna heaped praise on the organizations in the West during a visit to Ontario.
“We’re very fortunate in the West. We’ve got some great organizations, some great ownership groups and we also have the great fortune of playing in some terrific facilities, including the one here in Ontario,” McKenna said. “When you get a good product on the ice, you get a top-level front office and then you also get a world-class facility, it makes it easy for fans to come out and, for a very affordable price, watch ECHL hockey.”
The Reign have been exemplary in that model of a successful Western Conference franchise.
“The staff here has done a great job here in terms of entertaining fans,” McKenna said. It is a great facility, it’s very central, easy to get to and it has all the amenities of a major-league facility.
“They continue to have a strong fan base. Right from the get-go they’ve always been, if not the leader in league attendance, they’ve been in the top two or three every year.”
This season, seven of the top 10 teams in attendance are Western Conference clubs. They include the Reign at No. 2 and the expansion Colorado Eagles at No. 4.
Next season, the conference will welcome another member in the San Francisco Bulls, who will play in Daly City’s Cow Palace, which was home to the IHL’s San Francisco Spiders and the San Jose Sharks in their early NHL days.
It will mark the first time professional hockey has returned to the San Francisco area since the Spiders folded after just one season in 1996.
“We’re going into this with our eyes open knowing that it is an older facility, it’s a very large market and they are going to have to work hard to get media coverage and the attention of the fans,” McKenna said.
“However, we know there are fans in the area. When the Sharks played there in the past, they played to sell-out crowds.”
The addition of the Bulls likely will mean a change in the playoff format. Seven of the eight teams in the west currently make the playoffs, with the top seed earning a first-round bye.
“Chances are we will be able to go back to eight teams in the West making the playoffs out of the nine and not have to have that bye,” said McKenna, who added a 10-to 12-team Western Conference was a goal the league was working toward.
The ECHL will hold its annual meetings of owners, management and league officials in June to finalize the details of the new playoff format as well as any rule changes for next season.
“We will pay very close attention to what happens in the National Hockey League in terms of any potential rule changes there,” McKenna said. “As it relates to players, I think safety is any issue with the amount of concussions. We’ll continue to try and perhaps tighten those rules as they relate to head shots and hits from behind to protect the players as best as we possibly can.”
For the Reign’s part, coach Jason Christie said the expansion and changing playoff format and even qualifying for this year’s bye – the Reign are five points back of the top spot – remained far from his mind.
“There’s gonna be new teams, we just gotta make sure we’re ready,” Christie said. “We don’t know until summertime so right now we’re just focused on this year.”