AHL Realignment and the Charlotte Checkers, Part V.

In their fifth major realignment related move in their six seasons in Charlotte, the Checkers will be joining the brand-new Central Division of the western conference for the 2015-16 season.

The American Hockey League is changing from a six-division league to a four-division league that mimics the National Hockey League. The Checkers Central Division rivals include the Milwaukee Admirals, Rockford IceHogs and Chicago Wolves (from their 2011-12 season in the Midwest Division), the Iowa Wild (from the past two seasons in the West Division. The Grand Rapids Griffins, who has been a part of the Midwest Division since the Checkers vacated, also join the Central Division, along with the Lake Erie Monsters. The Manitoba Moose, who return to the AHL after a four year hiatus, will be the eighth and final team in the Checkers Midwest Central Division.

So… who are the NHL squads affiliated with the Checkers new division rivals?

  • The Nashville Predators are the parent team of the Milwaukee Admirals. Milwaukee, like Charlotte, is a city filled with great craft beer. It’s a city passionate about their hockey team, and I’m already tentatively planning another roadtrip there to sample their hops… I mean, hockey!
  • The IceHogs of Rockford, Illinois is the birthplace of my favorite NASCAR cheater crew chief Chad Knaus, and home of the famed Rockford Peaches of A League of their Own. Their parent club is the Chicago Blackhawks, ranked number 30 on my personal list of favorite NHL teams.
  • The Manitoba Moose of Winter Winnipeg is home to both the NHL and AHL teams. The Jets and Moose will share an arena in the 2015-16 season and beyond.
  • The Chicago Wolves are currently the AHL affiliate of the St. Louis Blues. Their arena is one of the loudest in the AHL, but they have never played in Bojangles Coliseum, and I’m certain the Checkers will be taking over the “loudest” honors this year.
  • The Lake Erie Monsters have a new NHL affiliate, and that’s the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Monsters arena in Cleveland is the easiest drive for Checkers fans, a mere seven hours north on I-77. I forsee a visit by yours truly there in the near future. (Plus, Cleveland is another great beer city, and home of the incredible Great Lakes Brewing Co.).
  • The Iowa Wild of Des Moines are affiliated with the Minnesota Wild. I think it’s a travesty that they chose the name the “Wild” instead of adopting the past hockey team name of the “Chops” in honor of the hog farming industry of Iowa. Iowa is not known for it’s beer, but the corn fields likely provide many of the adjunct grains required for good farmhouse ales.
  • The Detroit Red Wings and Grand Rapids Griffins are located a little over two hours apart. The Griffins share their hometown with Founders Brewing, who make a number of outstanding beers. Grand Rapids is just north of one of my favorite breweries in the land, Bells.

With the departure of the Manchester Monarchs, Norfolk Admirals and Worcester Sharks to California, three teams from the Western Conference were able to move East. Though many speculated Checkers would be one of them, all three teams are (barely) further east then Charlotte. The Rochester Americans (who the Checkers have still never played, despite sharing a conference for four years), Utica Comets and Toronto Marlies all join the Eastern Conference in 2015.

What does another division realignment mean for the Checkers as far as the schedule go? Likely, not much will change due to their new division mates. The biggest difference Checkers fans will notice is the lack of Oklahoma City and Norfolk on the travel schedule. These two teams represented approximately one-third of the Checkers games over the past two seasons, and both teams were bought and subsequently moved to California. Travel to Manitoba will be the most challenging for the Checkers, but at only 1600 miles, it’s only a bit more than half as far as Abbotsford, British Columbia, who the Checkers spent a season with as division rivals.

So, Checkers fans: What do you think of the latest AHL alignment? Is there a division you would have rather seen them in? What about the AHL’s decision to go from six to four divisions? There’s lots to think and talk about!

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#CheckersComeHome: The chance to make history

When I think about the Checkers move home to Bojangles Coliseum, one wish continues to come to mind, and that’s a reconnection with history.  The Checkers aren’t a team that simply arrived in Charlotte in 2010.  They also aren’t a team that moved to TWCA in 2005 after 13 years at Bojangles that began in 1993 with the ECHL (even though the Charlotte Business Journal alludes to that being the only history the Checkers have at Bojangles Coliseum).

The Charlotte Checkers are a team that has spanned decades in Charlotte. My parents attended games on dates when they were high school and college sweethearts.  I attended my first pro hockey game there when I was in high school. The Checkers roots run deep at Bojangles Coliseum, and I know the current organization embraces this beyond the simple(yet eloquent!) “Checkers Come Home” phrase. The leagues and franchises have changed, but Charlotte hockey teams have won five championships over the course of the past 60 years.

The first Charlotte Hockey team, the Charlotte Clippers, were the Eastern Hockey League Champions in 1957, in their first full season in Charlotte.  After changing their name to the Charlotte Checkers in 1960, the franchise went on to win championships in 1970 and again in 1972. After moving to the Southern Hockey League in 1973, the Checkers won the championship in 1975 and 1976. Unfortunately, the following season was cut short when the league folded, and it wasn’t until 1993 that Charlotte had a professional hockey team again.

My dream for Bojangles Coliseum is to see five championship banners hanging from the rafters, or at least prominently inside the rink, because each of the five championships Charlotte has are significant, even if they aren’t from the current AHL era.  Having visited a number of AHL arenas, I’ve seen teams that embrace their history of past leagues and championships. I hope the Checkers show off their history, because they have a rich and storied one.

The logos and leagues have changed, but pride in the Milwaukee Admirals remains. (Photo: J. Propst)
The logos and leagues have changed, but pride in the Milwaukee Admirals remains. (Photo: J. Propst)

When I visited Milwaukee for the first time for an Admirals game, I was struck by the history in the building. Hanging prominently in the rafters of an arena shared with an NBA team, hung banners touting the USHL, IHL and AHL championships Milwaukee Admirals franchises have won over the year. Different leagues. Different levels of competitive hockey, but they all shared one beloved name in Milwaukee, and that’s the Admirals.

 

Retired jerseys and championship banners, from three different leagues worth of Milwaukee Admirals. (Photo: J. Propst)
Retired jerseys and championship banners, from three different leagues worth of Milwaukee Admirals. (Photo: J. Propst)

I then traveled to Chicago, and Peoria, and saw the same thing. Cities and teams proud of their history, of their hockey teams, even when they changed leagues.

I’ve always been a bit jealous of that history, or at least, the cities that not only embrace the history, but flaunt it.  And Charlotte has a hockey history that deserves to be flaunted. We have a rich and storied hockey past that at 59 years and counting, is something to be proud of.

So my dream is to walk into Bojangles Coliseum next fall and see banners in the rafters proclaiming the awesome feats that Checkers over the decades have accomplished. I want to see EHL and SHL Championship Banners.  A banner proclaiming the Charlotte Checkers as the Kelly Cup Champions.

Checkers fans have a lot to look forward to next season when the team moves home.  I’m excited about the old and new traditions that the building will facilitate.

January 30, 2016 is the 60th Anniversary of the first professional hockey game in Charlotte (and one of the grand opening events at BoCo?) Now that’s a date to celebrate and I hope it’s a great one.

 

 

So, what are your wishes for the 2015-16 season, and the Checkers return to Bojangles?

 

Thanks to #MACnificent play by Drew MacIntyre, Checkers win back-to-back games against Milwaukee Admirals

On this final day of Thanksgiving weekend, I’m grateful for many things, but especially a second Checkers win in a row, and the piece of leftover pumpkin pie I’m enjoying while I write.

Pumpkin pie is delicious. I'm thankful for this and a second Thanksgiving weekend Checkers win.
Pumpkin pie is delicious. I’m thankful for this and a second Thanksgiving weekend Checkers win.

With a goal by Justin Shugg, the Checkers 3-2 shootout victory over the Milwaukee Admirals led to their first back to back wins of the 2014-15 season, thanks to stellar goaltending from first star Drew MacIntyre, who I gave the hashtag #MACnificent to following another outstanding performance.

The game was full of firsts for the Checkers.  It was their first win of the season after trailing at the end of the first period, their first trip to the shootout, and their first back-to-back wins.

The Checkers, who reached overtime for only the third time this season, faced the three-on-three portion for the first time. A new rule in 2014 saw OT being lengthened to a seven minute period, with the first four minutes being 4-on-4 and the final three 3-on-3 hockey. The formula for what skaters to play was constantly changing between two defensemen and one forward, or two forwards and one defenseman.

“It’s exciting. It’s crazy on the bench. You’re trying to see f you want to go two D or two forwards.  It was our first experience with it but for me, it’s exciting,” Daniels continued, “We won the game in a shootout, but I’d rather see the game won four-on-four or three on three.”

Beau Schmitz, who was back in the lineup for his second game in a row after sitting out since October 25, saw a lot of ice time during the afternoon matchup, and contributed an assst on AJ Jenks game-tying goal in the third period.  His perspective on Justin Shugg’s recent play, and game-winning shootout goal is one shared by Checkers players and fans a like.

“He’s [Shugg] been playing great. He’s a benefit to have back in the lineup. Goal scoring and getting pucks out.”

(Editors note: Shugg was standing nearby when this was said, and even after Shugg chirped Schmitz a bit, Beau stayed positive, so it must be true!)

Schmitz, like all of the Checkers players, experienced three-on-three OT hockey for the first time in his career.

“It’s a bit different. It’s exciting,” Schmitz said, “I haven’t even watched something like that before.”

Drew MacIntyre, who stopped all five of the shots he faced in extra time and then perfect in the shootout, had an intense seven minutes of overtime, including the first minute that left the Checkers short handed to a late third period penalty by AJ Jenks.

“It’s not ideal, not good for the old heart,” MacIntyre sad with a smile, “It was a good test for us. Our PK wasn’t good enough last night. It was a good test for us. We played well tonight.”

MacIntyre was glad Charlotte had the first try at three-on-three OT hockey, but it’s not his first choice for ending a hockey game.

“Obviously, I like it in the playoffs where you just keep playing. That’s hockey. That’s intense…. I like overtime. I like shootouts when I win, but when I lose I hate them.”

Other Admiral thoughts (get it? Admiral thoughts?)

  • The Checkers are in the midst of a four-game home winning streak, including three games against Admirals teams (of Norfolk and Milwaukee, combined).
  • Maybe, with the recent Checkers home-streak against Admirals teams, the Checkers can get the league to change all the other teams to the Admirals. But then it would be like the Harlem Globetrotters facing the same team every night, but they have a great win-streak going, so I might be onto something.