When the American Hockey League returns to Baltimore this fall, you may not recognize it. The league has undergone an image transplant in the 1990s and has grown significantly since 1993, the last time the Baltimore Skipjacks took the ice.
In the 1989-90 season, the AHL had two divisions, 13 teams and played in such places as Newmarket, Ontario, and Sherbrooke, Quebec. By 1996, there will be at least 20 teams and four divisions, with southern franchises in Lexington, Ky., and Greensboro, N.C., and northern locales such as Syracuse, N.Y., and Providence, R.I., replacing those smaller Canadian cities.
Only six NHL teams are not affiliated with the 18-team AHL, and general managers as well as city planners want to be part of the 60-year-old league that prides itself on player development.
League president Dave Andrews said he is still not satisfied.
"Eventually, we want to have all NHL teams affiliated with us," Andrews said recently. "We need to keep expanding into bigger markets. That has been my first priority since the day I took this job."
The Lexington franchise will be ready to play by 1996-97, as will a team in Lowell, Mass. Former Boston Bruins superstar Bobby Orr and former presidential candidate Paul Tsongas own the Lowell team.
During the off-season, the league also has welcomed the Walt Disney Corp. with Baltimore's affiliation with the Disney-owned Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and two other NHL teams. The Florida Panthers and St. Louis Blues pulled out of the competing International Hockey League in favor of the AHL.
"All the kids in the AHL are on two-way contracts," meaning they can be called up to the NHL without having their contracts purchased by an NHL team, said Bob Teck, co-owner of the Baltimore Bandits. "In the 'I,' the game is slower and less intense. I would not appreciate watching dinosaurs as a fan or an owner."
Panthers general manager Bryan Murray can sum up his decision to enter the league in two words: player development.
"It's the ideal league for us," Murray said. "There are a lot of young players who are eager to play. All the teams are tied to NHL teams. The AHL is full of players who have a chance to succeed in the NHL. The IHL caters to older players."
Murray, who is entering his second year with Florida, said he planned to switch his minor-league affiliate from the time he took the job. The Panthers will fill the roster of the Carolina Monarchs, another of the AHL's expansion teams. Baltimore, Hershey, Pa., Binghamton, N.Y., and Carolina will constitute the AHL's Southern Division.
Mike Keenan, coach and general manager of the Blues, coached the AHL's Rochester Americans from 1980 to 1983 and decided to affiliate with the Worcester (Mass.) Ice Cats, who played last season as an independent AHL franchise. Keenan liked the Worcester staff so much he decided to retain Jim Roberts as the coach, rather than bring in his coaches from Peoria, Ill., the
Blues' former IHL affiliate.
The AHL still is getting inquiries from investors seeking to put a team in New Haven, Conn., and the league granted a conditional franchise to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., for the 1997-98 season, pending the construction of an arena -- another trend across the league.
The pucks are still flying around rustic Hersheypark Arena and the Rochester War Memorial Coliseum, but, for the most part, old buildings are gone from the AHL.
The Lowell franchise will be playing in a new arena, the Lexington team will take the ice in 21,000-capacity Rupp Arena and Carolina will be skating in a modern, 21,500-seat facility. The Albany River Rats call luxurious Knickerbocker Arena home, and several AHL cities are considering constructing new facilities.
Many hockey people thought the AHL would have expanded even more this season. Several East Coast Hockey League franchises (located in the Southeast) were expected to join the Greensboro-based Carolina Monarchs in jumping to the AHL. Some ECHL owners may have been scared off by the extra zeros on AHL payrolls.
"We are a more expensive league to operate in," Andrews said. "The ECHL has been able to fill their buildings with lower-salaried, lower-caliber players. We are happy to have Greensboro, but we'd love to welcome two or three more cities like Hampton Roads, Va., Charlotte, N.C., or Richmond, Va."
The addition of those cities would provide natural rivals for Baltimore, Lexington and Carolina, and give the league a strong presence in the South.
"I was most happy to get Anaheim, Florida and St. Louis into our league this year," Andrews said. "They are three really successful teams, and getting them was a major accomplishment. We worked hard for a year and a half to land them, and it was a worthwhile investment."