By the numbers: Charlotte Checkers 2015-16 schedule

The 2015-16 AHL schedule has finally been released, and here’s the annual Chasing Checkers analysis of it, in a “by the numbers” format.

Editor’s Note: Some of the following numbers come with a healthy dose of sarcasm, but let me assure you, the Checkers schedule is WAY better than some. One California team I analyzed is facing only eight opponents, and only two teams outside of their own division. I’d much rather see 13 opponents and no eastern conference teams than the same six squads over and over again California teams appear to be playing each other 12 times each! Be grateful, Checkers fans. I am!

For a .pdf version of the schedule, head to GoCheckers.com

0 – The number of times Charlotte will face Oklahoma City and Norfolk this year. Previously, the Checkers played nearly one-third of their games against franchises in those two cities, but both moved to California for the 2015 season. I can’t believe there’s #Norfolkingway Charlotte will ever play in Virginia this season…. But I won’t miss those clown barf uniforms!

0 – The number of games the Checkers will play against Eastern Conference Teams, despite being further east than many teams in that conference.

1 – Month in the AHL schedule without a home game for the Checkers. Charlotte will have 10 road games during that time, in a row, facing Iowa, Milwaukee, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Rockford and Lake Erie.

2 – The number of three-in-threes the Checkers will face. Both instances are on the road and feature Grand Rapids/Chicago and Milwaukee/Rockford. This is an all-time-low. Last season, Charlotte had three. In 2013-14, five, and way back in 2012-13, the Checkers had seven three-in-threes

3 – The number of new California teams the Checkers will face this season. Ontario, San Jose and San Diego all made the cut.

3 – Number of eastern conference teams closer to Charlotte than any team in their own Central division (Hershey, Wilkes-Barre and Allentown)

4 – The number of home and away games the Checkers will play against the San Diego Gulls, or how many wagers on who’s team will come out victorius that Chasing Checkers will make against former Checkers staffer Nate Beasley

4 – The number of times we get to hear Oh! Canada at Bojangles Coliseum, when the Manitoba Moose come to Charlotte. (November 7&8 and January 16&17 for those of you keeping track!)

4 – The number of different divisions the Checkers have played in since coming to Charlotte in 2010. Only when they played with a bunch of teams in Texas did the Checkers have largely the same division-mates for more than one season. This seasons “Central” division includes teams in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Iowa, two teams in Illinois, one in Wisconsin, one in Michigan, one in Ohio and of course North Carolina. Based on this not-so-central grouping of teams, I propose the league rename it the “midwest and leftovers” division.

6 – The number of away games Charlotte will play in their own Eastern time zone

6 – Also the number of games the Checkers will play in the Pacific time zone, AKA three hours later than Charlotte is.

6 – The Checkers longest home stand in games, or about two weeks. This will occur five times this season.

10 – The Checkers longest road trip, which will stretch out for the entire first month of the AHL season.

12– The number of different teams the Checkers will face during the 2015-16 season. This is down from 2013-14 and 2014-15 when Charlotte had 13 different opponents.

24 – The number of games the Checkers will have in the Central time zone, which fortunately, is only one hour later.

38 – The number of opportunities to see the Checkers at the amazing and newly renovated Bojangles Coliseum.

56 – The number of games Charlotte will play against Central Division Rivals (exactly eight games per team)

68 – The number of games the new California teams will play during the course of their (shortened) AHL season

76 – The number of games the Checkers (and the majority of the AHL) play during the seven-month season.

515 – The low, low number of miles to the Checkers closest division rival, the Lake Erie Monsters. (And in tanks of gas, one each way thanks to Chasing Checkers awesome new car!)

1673 – Miles to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Home of new division rivals THE Moose (and a lot of moose).

2675 – The number of miles if you wanted to drive to see the Checkers play in San Jose, California.

But the very most important number:

71 – Days until the Checkers home opener against Manitoba!!!!!

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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!

The AHL and western expansion: What does the future hold?

The AHL is bound to be a very different league next season, with as many as four teams moving west to a time zone that currently doesn’t have a single AHL squad.

The chips are falling, one by one, and soon the AHL will have their coveted “Pacific Division”… teams that will mostly be based in California, and will be closer to their NHL affiliate.

Most NHL teams will state they desire to have their AHL squads closer to home. It enables them to have easier call ups (Zach Boychuk can probably drive up I-85 to Raleigh with a blindfold on) and allow them to monitor their development, but the close by model is one that doesn’t always work. Charlotte has had success as an AHL franchise since 2010. Thanks to a dedicated front office, a strong fan base and consistent ticket sales, the Checkers seem to have found a home here, and the upcoming move home to Bojangles Coliseum only solidifies that.

The Checkers move (three miles east, to BoCo) shows a long term commitment to the city of Charlotte and its hockey fans, which is comforting to see when so many AHL clubs are being ripped from their homes and moved to California. The Checkers have found success where other franchises far away from the overly saturated AHL north east, despite a tough travel schedule thanks in part to being a member of the Western Conference but also because their closest AHL team is the Eastern Conference team of Norfolk, 325 miles and over five hours away. For the past five seasons, the Checkers have played the Admirals an average of 10-12 games per season, and the same can be said for the Oklahoma Barons, who have been the Checkers most common Western Conference opponent for the past four seasons. Next year, both of these rivals will be in southern California, and become cornerstones of the new AHL Pacific division.

Oklahoma City already announced the Barons will cease operations at the end of the 2014-15 season.  The Barons have been the Checkers most frequent opponent over the past four season, and they will (likely, unconfirmed but as the old magic eight ball says, all signs point to YES) play in Bakersfield, replacing the current ECHL squad there that the Oilers own. As of right now, there are no plans for another team to replace the Barons, which is quite the blow to the loyal fans in OKC. Neal & Co. at Tend the Farm have had great coverage of the move, and it’s worth a read for more in-depth information.

The Norfolk Admirals have been trying to deny a move for weeks, with facebook posts promising that they are staying, yet nobody was buying it.  Yesterday, Ken Young, the owner of the Admirals said in an interview that he had been forced to sell his team to the Anaheim Ducks.  You can read more about it here, but it’s a pretty sad story.  In a nutshell, since the Ducks want their team close, the only way to have that happen is to buy an AHL franchise (much Michael Kahn did to bring the River Rats to Charlotte in 2010.. the difference there was that Albany was ultimately able to keep an AHL team, albeit with a different NHL affiliate, but at least they kept the high caliber of hockey the fans of Albany were used to.

The good news for Norfolk is the Admirals have a replacement ECHL team that will relocate from California to Norfolk next season.  The Oilers plan to move the Bakersfield Condors to Norfolk, who no longer need an ECHL team in SoCal since they will have their AHL squad instead. It is rumored that the Ducks AHL team will be located in San Diego, leaving a vacancy in Stockton for another potential AHL move.

Another domino that’s recently fallen in the Pacific division is the news a couple of days ago that the Worcester Sharks would be moving to San Jose, California and will share a building with their parent club.  No word on what the AHL team will be called, since having two teams named the Sharks in one city and one building would be confusing.  If it was my team, I think I’d name them the Minnows, in honor of my favorite pool game “Sharks and Minnows” from summer camp.

The third NHL team in California is, of course, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings. Their AHL affiliate is the Manchester Monarchs, who the Checkers haven’t faced since their inaugural season in 2010-11.  The Monarchs are owned by Anschutz Entertainment Group, the same group who owns an ECHL team in California.  The Ontario Reign have had great success in the ECHL, breaking attendance records and would have no trouble continuing that should they get promoted to the AHL next season.

So, what other Western Conference teams might be affected by the TBA Pacific Division of the AHL? Only time will tell, but here are a few facts and figures:

  • The Utica Comets are owned by the Vancouver Canucks. It’s their second full season in New York, and they are hosting the AHL All Star Game next week. While it seems easy to consider the Comets moving west since they are owned by their NHL club, they signed a lengthy lease and spent a lot of cash on arena improvements in Utica, so only time will tell if the Canucks decide moving their prospects closer to home is worth the broken contracts and expense.
  • The Arizona Coyotes’ AHL team is the Portland Pirates. Last year, the Coyotes purchased a the Arizona Sundogs, a CHL team in Prescott, AZ, but decided to cease operations, though rumors have them joining the ECHL in 2015. They are a team that would obviously like to have their prospects closer than Maine.
  • The Colorado Avalanche also purchased a CHL team last year, and like the Coyotes, decided to cease operations in August, prior to the start of the CHL season. Rumors continue to circulate that the Denver Cutthroats could resume operations in 2015-16 as a member of the ECHL or AHL. Currently, the Avalanche’s AHL squad is the Lake Erie Monsters in Cleveland, OH.
  • The Calgary Flames have said they want their AHL squad closer, and there may be an opening in Stockton, CA. It must be noted, however, that their attempt to have an AHL team close by in Abbotsford failed due to lack of fan support and a brutal travel schedule (remember last season, folks, when they were in the same division as Charlotte…) The Flames are playing their first season in Glen Falls, NY after moving their AHL Flames from Abbotsford following the conclusion of the 2013-14 season. Glen Falls has a three-year contract (they are in year one) with the Calgary Flames, but contracts are easily broken.
  • Albany, which has been the home of the New Jersey Devils AHL squad since the Hurricanes left in 2010, is in the final year of a five-year contract.
  • The Winnipeg Jets, who own the St. John’s Ice Caps, are planning to move the team to Thunder Bay, ON. Despite being in a time zone of their own and traveling more miles than any other team in the AHL, the IceCaps have had great success since they moved to St. John’s in 2011. Sell out crowds and a consistent winning record are just a couple of examples of this.  While it’s not as far west as California, Thunder Bay is about 2000 miles from St. John’s, and almost as far from every AHL team in the league as St. John’s is.

So… what does all of this mean for Charlotte? Only time will tell.

It is certain that Norfolk and Oklahoma City are gone, and in those two teams are 20-24 of the Checkers 76 games each season. Another realignment will have to happen in the AHL, since three to four eastern conference teams are leaving for California, and St. John’s is probably moving west to Thunder Bay. This makes rooms for “Eastern” Western Conference teams like Charlotte, Toronto, Hamilton and Rochester to potentially move conferences, though changing conferences won’t necessarily improve travel for the Checkers. Many I’ve spoken to with the Checkers have told me the Western conference travel is much nicer than the bus runs the Checkers used to make in the north east.

The AHL Board of Governors meet this weekend in Utica, so we will likely know something sooner than later.