AHL’s new Pacific Division to boost hockey in Southland

Norfolk Admirals' Dany Heatley keeps an eye on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin's goal on Jan. 9.
Norfolk Admirals’ Dany Heatley keeps an eye on the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin’s goal on Jan. 9.
(Andrew Krech / AP)

Certainly there are some financial savings at play, but executives of the Kings and Ducks said the greatest benefit of the American Hockey League’s new Pacific Division announced Thursday is convenience.

Earlier this season in Colorado, the Ducks had goalie coach Dwayne Roloson on the bench in an emergency backup role because Anaheim couldn’t summon a true backup from the AHL affiliate in Norfolk, Va., in time.

Now, as part of a new five-team division that will move the Ducks’ affiliate to San Diego and the Kings’ from Manchester, N.H., to Ontario in the fall, a slew of player-development benefits are available.


“It’s not a money thing,” Ducks Chairman Michael Schulman said. “The players will be better equipped, less tired. You save money because you’ll have a better product on the ice.”

Cash also will be saved. The Ducks, beset by injuries and mumps cases in the first half of the season, have suffered more than 200 lost man games this season — wearing quite a path back and forth from Norfolk to Anaheim.

“We needed to make this happen,” Ducks General Manager Bob Murray said.

Murray spoke with joy about his plans to “drive down the coast” and personally watch his franchise’s top minor leaguers practice and play with regularity. Kings executive Luc Robitaille said General Manager Dean Lombardi and assistant GM Rob Blake “want to be able to go see these players practice every day if they want to.”

How richly stacked is hockey’s premier minor league? All but two current Ducks played in the league, and 88% of all NHL players have made a stop in the AHL.

The San Jose Sharks will keep their affiliate in their own arena, SAP Center, while the Edmonton Oilers will have a team in Bakersfield, and the Calgary Flames will be represented in Stockton.

At Ontario’s AEG-owned Citizens Business Bank Arena, the Kings’ team will maintain the Reign nickname, while the current ECHL franchise there will switch to occupy the arena in Manchester.

“The quality of [AHL] hockey is another level, like in baseball when you go from ‘A’ to Triple-A, everyone knows those are the guys that are one call away,” said Robitaille, the Kings’ Hall of Fame player and president of business operations. “Tyler Toffoli was there, then comes up and helps us win a Cup … same with Tanner Pearson, [Jake] Muzzin.

“To all those fans who’ve been so loyal to the Reign in that great building, they’re going to really enjoy seeing that next level of play.”

Thursday was the fulfillment of a pursuit Murray said he started upon taking the Ducks’ GM job in 2008.

“We tried a little bit then, nobody was on the same page, it just wasn’t going to happen,” Murray said of other teams locked into leases.

The culmination took the Ducks to purchase the current Norfolk franchise — a deal that was unanimously approved by the AHL — and for the other teams to clarify their own situations with the help of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and AHL President and CEO David Andrews.

In San Diego, the Ducks are trying to reach a compromise to name the team the Gulls. Teams with that nickname have played in three different leagues there between 1966 and 2006.

The former San Diego Sports Arena, now called Valley View Casino Center, is an AEG-operated property that the Ducks already have invested in to upgrade dressing rooms and new boards for the rink. The building near Mission Bay was once home to the San Diego Clippers and a Muhammad Ali fight.

The Ducks “will put a fair amount of money in” with AEG to upgrade seats and add suites to the building, Schulman said.

“Really good hockey town, seventh-biggest city in the U.S.,” Murray said. “It’s a good marriage. First games I ever pro-scouted after I retired [from playing] were in San Diego, and there were over 10,000 people there. It can be successful.”

Marketing-wise, there’s potential, too. The Ducks will host a San Diego “Hockey-Fest” on Feb. 22 at 3 p.m. at the arena, free to the public. Said Schulman: “We hope people will be Ducks fans from the Mexican border to Los Angeles.”

A new practice facility in Poway is being pursued in an existing building, said Murray.

Schulman will be the San Diego team’s CEO, Murray the president of hockey operations, with current Norfolk assistant GM Bob Ferguson elevated to GM, and Ari Segal, who has devoted three years to the move, named president of business operations.