The East Coast Hockey League, once considered the lowest of the U.S. minor hockey leagues, has been growing steadily the past five years under Pat Kelly, the league commissioner.
The ECHL has as many teams as the well-established American Hockey League (15) and five more than the International Hockey League. Two of its teams, the Cincinnati Cyclones and Hampton Roads Admirals, have the best attendance in minor-league hockey. Cincinnati, with former Baltimore Skipjacks radio broadcaster Terry Ficorelli as general manager, is averaging nearly 10,000 customers to the Cincinnati Gardens. Cincinnati, which is affiliated with the New Jersey Devils, had the largest crowd of the season, 10,202. Hampton, with former Baltimore Clipper John Brophy as coach and general manager, is averaging nearly 8,000 fans to the Norfolk (Va.) Scope.
"We are averaging 4,217 fans a game, and if we continue this pace, we'll hit 2.2 million for the year," said Kelly. "We have five clubs over 4,000 a game in average attendance, and our attendance is up over last year."
The ECHL, once considered a "goon league," has changed its image under Kelly.
"The caliber of play in this league has come a long way in just a few years," said Kelly. "The word has gotten around that this is a good place to play for young guys and that no one will get their heads taken off. We have had no bench-clearing brawls, and that has a lot to do with the coaches and officials in our league.
"Every one of our teams is affiliated with at least one NHL team and this has helped the caliber of play, what with good young prospects playing in our league. I look for a bright future. We are going to take in Charlotte next year, and that will put our league at 16 teams, and we'll be the largest minor league in hockey. We plan to stay at 16 teams for a while to make the league stronger and more viable."
The Washington Capitals consider Hampton their second farm club behind the Baltimore Skipjacks, and the Philadelphia Flyers and Calgary Flames have a working agreement with the Roanoke Valley (Va.) Rebels.
Other teams in the league and their affiliation are: Greensboro (N.C.) Monarchs with the Quebec Nordiques; Johnstown (Pa.) Chiefs, coached by former Skipjack Steve Carlson, with the Boston Bruins; Winston-Salem (N.C.) Thunderbirds with the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens; Richmond (Va.) Renegades with the New York Islanders; Erie (Pa.) Panthers with the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers; Knoxville (Tenn.) Cherokees with the Pittsburgh Penguins; Raleigh (N.C.) Icecaps with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Kings; Toledo (Ohio) Storm with the Detroit Red Wings; Dayton (Ohio) Bombers with the Minnesota North Stars and St. Louis Blues; Columbus (Ohio) Chill with the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks; Nashville (Tenn.) Knights with the San Jose Sharks; and Louisville (Ky.) Icehawks with the Harford Whalers.