Jun 29, 2018

By Tom Witosky

Follow @toskyAHLWild

When American Hockey League President Dave Andrews thought about retiring recently, one fact got in the way.

He’s having too much fun.

“I’m very excited to stay on,” the AHL’s top executive for the past 24 years told more than 200 league employees attending its annual Team Business Meetings held recently in Des Moines. “It’s fun and exciting and I am energized to stay on.”

After last season, Andrews has plenty of reasons to be happy with the direction of the league he hopes to oversee for at least another two years. “God willing,” he added.

Below are just some of the accomplishments of the AHL during the 2017-18 season.

  • Annual total revenues generated by AHL teams and the league set a new record.
  • Ticket sales for the 2017-18 season grew with 25 of the 31 league teams, marking growth over the previous year. The league’s average attendance of 5,904 ranked second-highest since the 2005 season and third-highest in the league’s 82-year history.
  • Television exposure of the league achieved a major milestone with the telecast of the seven-game Calder Cup Finals between eventual champion Toronto Marlies and runner-up Texas Stars by TSN in Canada and the NHL Network in the U.S. Game 7 drew more than 1 million viewers in Canada during the game, Andrews reported.
  • NHL reliance on their AHL affiliates to provide players and officials ready to perform for the league continued with 328 players having seen action in at least one AHL game and one NHL game during the 2017-18 season. More indicative of the AHL’s development role was that 42 of the 50 players on the rosters of the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals and runner-up Vegas Golden Knights were AHL graduates.

“In terms of our business, it was a very strong year,” Andrews said. “Revenues were at an all-time high for the league, our involvement with players moving up to the NHL was significant and we had a spectacular playoff,” Andrews said. “That is a good year.”

Andrews is credited with leading the AHL into becoming the top hockey development minor league that has grown from its early days in the northeast U.S. and eastern Canada to a 31-team league stretching from Quebec to California. Eighteen of the 31 teams are owned by NHL organizations.

That number of NHL teams owning their AHL affiliates combined with the introduction of a salary cap on NHL player salaries have acted to force a transformation of the league into a vital cog in any NHL organization’s desire to win a Stanley Cup. 

The league president said the success of Iowa’s franchise off the ice has proven to be a model for the rest of the league. He credited Todd Frederickson, president of the Iowa franchise, and the Minnesota Wild front office with turning the AHL franchise into one of the best in the league.

“Iowa has been a model in several different ways,” Andrews said, alluding to problems with the first Iowa AHL team that left after only four seasons. “There are a number of things that have happened here that has shown you can make huge strides even after a weak start.”

Andrews said Frederickson’s leadership, combined with Minnesota’s strong investment into the Iowa franchise, has become an example for other teams to follow.

“I think that’s become fairly common across the league now as we have strong ownership and larger investments into team staffs,” he said.

Andrews also credited the recent growth to the AHL’s decision to establish a team business division designed to provide all of the clubs with ideas to improve their operations through the experience of other clubs. Frederickson, who established the Iowa franchise, and Nathan Costa, who successfully restructured the Springfield Thunderbirds, were the first two directors of the team business services division.

“That has been a big step for us because you are taking the best practices of every team with like markets and helping them to learn how to improve their approaches to their communities,” Andrews said. “The owners are being shown that with a little bit more investment, this is the kind of return you can have in terms of ticket sales or corporate partners.”

As for the future, Andrews said the major focus will be on making significant improvements in getting AHL hockey to its fans through video streaming as well as continuing to work with the NHL Network in the U.S. and TSN and Sportsnet in Canada.

Andrews said several major changes in the league’s video streaming will be announced prior to the beginning of the 2018-19 season, but those details are being finalized. The network will be oriented at improving game telecasts streamed by the league as well providing teams and fans with substantially more content and video capability, he said.

“The actual streaming will better, but beyond that, the product will be more interactive,” Andrews said. “The storytelling and content generation will be much easier and it will be integrated into each team in various ways.”

Andrews said the continued improvement of AHL business operations as well as its expansion onto the West Coast has helped to provide a solid foundation for the league to do what it’s designed to do – ready players, game officials, and front office staff to make the jump to the NHL. What’s most noticeable, Andrews said, has been the improvement of the quality of the AHL game.

At a recent fundraiser in Canada, Andrews said he talked with a number of fans who watched portions of the Calder Cup Finals. He said many thought initially they were watching an NHL game.

“Clearly, they were unaware of the caliber of play because when they tuned in to one of the games on TSN, they really thought they were watching an NHL hockey game,” Andrews said. “The uniforms were basically the same as the NHL teams – Toronto and Dallas -- and the pace of play was amazing. They were shocked.”

With that kind of momentum, Andrews said it’s important for the league to continue to focus on what is important – providing players with a chance to develop into NHL players while entertaining the fans who are watching them.

“It is a very good product now,” he said. “When people go to games, they enjoy it. It is about getting people out to see it and giving them good entertainment value when they are there. It is really about having fun.”

On the recent hiring of Paul Fenton as the new Minnesota Wild general manager, Andrews predicted that Fenton would be paying substantial attention to the Wild’s AHL franchise. Fenton spent more than 10 years as the general manager for Iowa’s conference rival Milwaukee to help build the Nashville Predators into a top NHL team.

“His development model in Nashville was focused on Milwaukee,” Andrews said. “If you look at most of the players in Nashville right now, they had to spend a considerable amount of time in Milwaukee. I would say that there are good times ahead for the team here because he really does believe that to have success in the NHL, you have to have success in the AHL.”

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