The American Hockey League canceled the remainder of its 2019-20 season on Monday — including the Calder Cup Playoffs — due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Like the NHL, the 31-team minor league had paused its season on March 12.
AHL president and CEO David Andrews said that the league is “looking forward to returning to our arenas in 2020-21.” What the league can’t say, with any certainty, is what will happen in the months leading up to that return. Or when players and fans can return safely. Or what the AHL will look like when they do return.
For perspective on what comes next, we asked a current AHL player, general manager and two team presidents about the cancellation of this season and their concerns for the future of the NHL’s top developmental league.
This is not how Gerald Mayhew imagined winning a scoring title.
The Iowa Wild center scored 39 goals in 49 games this season, more than any other AHL player. The AHL’s statistics as of March 12 are considered final and official, and will serve as the basis for determining league awards for the 2019-20 season. Hence, Mayhew is the winner of the Willie Marshall Award for the league’s top goal-scorer.
“Some of the guys gave me crap for not getting to 40 goals,” he said with a laugh. “But it was a special season for me. Getting to play in my first NHL games [with the Minnesota Wild]. Having so much success in the American League. It’s a surreal moment. And that’s why we’re pretty bummed we couldn’t finish what we started.”
The Iowa Wild were second in the Central Division, looking very much like a playoff team that could do some damage. Instead, their season is over.
“My coach [Tim Army] was bummed. The players were bummed. We were such a close team and you don’t get those teams often. You get a couple of chances to win it, and I think this could have been one of those teams to do it. So this sucks,” he said.
Mayhew can remember watching NBA highlights from when Rudy Gobert was pulled from a Utah Jazz game due to COVID-19 symptoms on March 11. “We knew right away this isn’t going to be good. The NBA suspended their league. The NHL followed suit. We knew about the virus, but we didn’t know it was that serious,” he recalled.
AHL players, including Mayhew, have received their last two paychecks that were due to them. The 27-year-old forward is under contract for another season at $700,000 with the Minnesota Wild. A number of his teammates are pending free agents, and Mayhew said the lack of a postseason in the AHL hurts them from a bargaining perspective.
“Teams love when players win. So this actually hurts our guys for next season. You could tell they were bummed. A lot of heartfelt messages,” he said.
The message from Mayhew on the day the season was canceled was one of frustration. It starts with the great unknown that is the NHL’s 2019-20 season. Typically, players like Mayhew would be called up to join NHL teams once their AHL season ended. These “Black Aces” were at the ready if postseason injuries necessitated that they join the parent team’s lineup.
But the NHL hasn’t announced anything regarding a season restart, including whether they’ll expand the playoffs to include the Minnesota Wild. If their plan to quarantine players around centrally located arenas comes to pass, there may be a limit on how many AHL players can quarantine with them, as the NHL tries to keep the number of individuals it needs to test for COVID-19 at a minimum.
“[The Wild] are sending us workouts to do to keep in shape. But nobody has any idea,” Mayhew said. “It hasn’t moved closer to being able to play. They’ve talked about facilities being open so players can work out. I don’t know how that’ll work if the whole team isn’t there. It’s a guessing game. I don’t know what Gary Bettman is thinking. I know he wants the season to keep going and not lose money. But it’s just taking forever. And everyone is getting kind of frustrated.”
Mayhew said AHL players have “no idea what’s happening” in the NHL right now. He’s also pessimistic the season can restart under some of the proposed plans.
“They say a bunch of stuff, and I can’t see it happening. Everyone pretty much went home. A bunch of guys left the country. How is it going to work? Is there going to be a vote? If it’s a vote for players on playing a neutral sites in front of no fans, I can’t see players wanting to do that,” he said. “And then there’s the money. Do you defer it to next year, so escrow doesn’t go up? It’s a huge debacle. It’s not fun.”
So Mayhew will wait. Perhaps until he’s a reserve player for the Minnesota Wild this summer. Perhaps until he’s an offensive star again for the Iowa Wild next season — whenever that season starts.
“We don’t know when next year’s going to start,” he said. “I think they’ll have to wait. If you’re playing games without fans, you’re losing money. I can’t imagine that the league is playing games before the fans can come back. It’s a huge guessing game. I’m not a fan of the guessing game. I’m going to guess no one is.”
The general manager
During his 13-season NHL career, Scott Nichol played through two significant work stoppages. While a global pandemic certainly dwarfs the economic pangs of professional hockey owners in terms of “reasons to cancel your season,” the general manager of the Milwaukee Admirals has experienced some familiar feelings from his days watching the calendar in 2004-05.
“I remember as a player hearing the season would start Nov. 1. And then you get all geared up for that date, and then two weeks before that it gets pushed back to Dec. 1. So there’s a mourning period for about a week, and then it’s like, ‘Well, I better get going.’ Then it goes to Jan. 1, and you feel the same way,” he recalled. “You can’t ride every emotion on the roller coaster. You have to be prepared.”
Nichol got on that roller coaster on March 12 when the AHL season was paused.
“It wasn’t looking very good, was it? Our league is so gate-driven, and we’re half independent owners and half NHL owners. They always had around May 1 as the deadline. Anything that went after that wasn’t going to look very good,” he said. “It’s disappointing. Very, very disappointing, considering the group that we had.”
The Nashville Predators‘ affiliate had the best record in the AHL when the season was paused, leading in points (90) and points percentage (.714). The league said that since there is no postseason, it would not crown a 2019-20 Calder Cup champion.
But since they led the league standings, did the Admirals perhaps deserve to win the Cup?
“No,” Nichol said. “I think you have to go through those battles. You have to go through the playoffs. You just can’t be entitled to get a trophy. I would have never thought we’d be crowned Calder Cup champions. No … they did it right.”
(This is probably for the best, given the franchise’s infamous relationship with championship banners.)
Nichol held a Zoom meeting with his players and staff on Monday morning before the announcement. “We wanted to get ahead of it. I wanted to tell them that the season was canceled, and that we would start our individual exit meetings this week,” he said. “They knew as well. Reading it and saying it out loud really hits home. Especially for some of our older guys. You don’t get to play on teams like this very often.”
Nichol has made it a point to stay in communication with his players during the pause. “We’ve talked to them about three times as a group,” he said. “They’re young kids. They drop everything, leave Milwaukee, they’re quarantined in Mom and Dad’s basement. We wanted to make sure they’re mentally healthy and physically healthy. It’s good to see the guys, and how they’re reacting.”
While the season was paused, Nichol started to shift his attention to the offseason. He signed defenseman Alexandre Carrier to a new three-year deal, among other business.
“When is free agency going to start? I think everybody is a bit concerned about what the landscape is going to look like,” he said. “You plan for every situation. You have your plan on who you want, but the free-agent period might be really short. You can’t wait for what’s entailed with the NHL’s schedule. You have to plan for everything.”
He has told some of his top players to stay in shape for a potential restart of the NHL season. The Predators sit in the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference via points.
“I told the guys to be ready. I know their internal clocks are saying to start their summer program. You can’t just wait to see what happens. It all depends on the NHL,” he said. “No one’s skating right now. In the training camp, they can bring in a few [AHL] players. But they’re going to have to expand the rosters a little bit due to the injuries.”
When it comes to next AHL season, Nichol said there’s a lot of uncertainty, ranging from when it can happen to what the financial impact of the COVID-19 cancellation will have on teams.
“I think there’s a financial impact for every league. I think we’ll find a way. There’s going to be some bumps in the road for sure, but the great thing is that the NHL and the AHL work together,” he said.
“It’s tough. No one’s been through this. Not the players or the agents or the owners.”
Every few weeks, Syracuse Crunch owner and president Howard Dolgon would drive up from his South Florida home to Tampa to meet with Lightning officials about their AHL affiliate. On March 12, he made that drive before their home game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
“I got there around 3 p.m. and [Tampa Bay GM] Julien BriseBois meets me and says, ‘We’re done. The season is suspended.'”
The AHL hadn’t suspended their season yet, but Dolgon felt it was inevitable. While others hoped it could be a temporary pause, he was convinced otherwise. “My brother-in-law is a very well-respected infectious disease doctor. I asked him in layman’s terms what we were looking at here. And the way he laid it out for me is pretty much what we’re experiencing right now. And even back then he said not to expect [games] until the end of June or July. I was hopeful, but realistically I didn’t expect to play again,” he said.
The AHL Board of Governors meeting on Friday was a rubber stamp on the executive committee meeting earlier in the week, which had decided the fate of the season. “It wasn’t really a punch in the gut, because we were preparing for this for two months,” Dolgon said. “We can’t play in front of no fans.”
The NHL has been labeled a “gate-driven league” because it doesn’t have the TV-rights contracts or strong additional revenue streams like the NFL and NBA have. But the AHL is almost a purely gate-driven league. An NHL executive estimated to the Ottawa Sun that “75-to-85% of the revenues for AHL teams are generated by ticket sales, and the rest come in from sponsorships.”
The Crunch lost eight regular-season games and other potential playoff games. After Monday’s announcement, the Crunch released their ticket refund policy to fans and had sales staff calling fans all day to offer different options: from full refunds, to rolling over balances to next season, to a package that gives them additional ticket vouchers or merchandise credits if they apply that refund money to 2020-21 season tickets.
But what does next season look like in the AHL?
“There are four options out there,” said Robert Esche, team president of the Utica Comets, the top affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks. “Not just for the AHL, but for any sports league. From a scheduling perspective, what does it look like if we start on time? What does it look like if we have to push the season back one month or two months? What does it look like if we play half a season? And what does it look like if we cancel the season?”
For Esche, the start time of next season is perhaps the biggest question facing his franchise. First, because it could determine his staffing levels.
Esche made waves in March by selling a “Puck The Virus” shirt to help raise funds for his employees. While other teams trimmed staff through layoffs and furloughs, he was determined not to lose any of his employees. That remains the goal, heading into next season.
“My goal is to get through the summer and the fall with the same amount of employees as we had heading into [the pause],” he said. “If we get into a situation where we play half a season, we’ll have some significant challenges. But our game plan is keep everybody whole and on staff. I know that’s not what every team is doing, but it’s what we’re doing here in Utica. It’s what the fans expect of us.”
The bigger question when it comes to next season is about those fans, and in particular when they can and will return.
“I’d be a fool to say that things aren’t going to change. Now you have to earn people’s trust. It’s not about just putting on a good product on the court or on the field. Now it’s also a huge trust factor. People want to be feel safe,” Esche said.
That includes coronavirus-proofing his arena as effectively as possible, from additional hand sanitizer to potential temperature checks on those entering the building to the kind of testing gear you might see at an airport.
“Is human behavior going to be that people are going to stay away or do they come back?” he asked. “I feel that you’re going to have a demographic shift in attending live sports.”
Esche estimates that the majority of his fan base is between the ages of 45 and 65. “Right now, one of the things we do really well is listen to the chatter on social media,” he said. “There’s a huge level of interest in live sports for younger fans. They want to come back. And then there are others that are looking to wait maybe a month or two months to see what happens. And then there are others that are saying that until there’s a vaccine and 100% certainty, that they’re not coming back.”
Dolgon also sees the potential for a demographic shift. “Certainly the older fans and the ones that have conditions that make them susceptible to any kind of illness may stay away,” he said. “They may stay away forever until we have a vaccine, because the condition is life-threatening.”
Both owners said they’re confident that the AHL’s teams will all return next season — Dolgon suggested that the NHL could subsidize AHL teams if the league returns to play in empty buildings. But what’s the likeliest scenario for the AHL next season, after canceling this one?
“There’s no crystal ball. But if you said to me what my gut feeling is, it would be to start with fans in December or January, and then playing a shortened season for one year. That would be my gut,” Dolgon said. “Safety is paramount. The last thing we need to do is play in front of fans when we’re not ready. When people feel it’s safe to come back, they’ll come back in droves. But why risk it?”