Four seasons after the Carolina Hurricanes relocated their AHL affiliate from Albany, New York, to Charlotte, North Carolina, the decision has proved to be an enormous success in every regard.
The move has vastly improved call-up logistics, dramatically reduced travel expenses and substantially expanded the popularity of the sport of hockey and the Hurricanes' brand throughout North Carolina.
The change in location was first announced in February 2010, setting up the club to move south and assume the Checkers title (Charlotte's ECHL franchise from 1993 to 2010) starting in 2010-11. The Checkers' press release at the time (archived by Travis Hughes of SB Nation) outlined the very positives that have since emerged as keys to the relocation's success:
The partnership will unite North Carolina’s two biggest cities, Raleigh and Charlotte, and form marketing and operational synergy between the state’s only two professional hockey teams.
The agreement provides advantages both on and off the ice, such as savings on travel, cross-promotion and marketability of players as they develop into future NHL stars.
Professional hockey was first played in Charlotte 58 years ago, but the last four years have exploded the sport onto the radar of North Carolina's most populous city far more than any other era to date.
Showcased in Time Warner Cable Arena—also home to the NBA's Hornets and far closer to Charlotte's city center than PNC Arena is to Raleigh's—the Checkers have ranked in the top 10 in the AHL in attendance all four years.
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Another great crowd today. Three straight sell-outs for the pesky Checkers pic.twitter.com/wV1CxJYJ5Y— Mike Lappan (@MikeLappan) February 9, 2014
While the Checkers' pre-2010 ECHL incarnation also drew relatively large crowds—ranking among the top six in the 20-team ECHL with average attendance over 5,300 in each of their final three campaigns—the increased exposure of a higher-tier minor league has significantly boosted the city and the state's interest in hockey.
From 2003 to 2013, North Carolina experienced the sixth-highest uptick in youth hockey participation among the nation's 50 states, according to data from Chris Peters of The United States of Hockey.
North Carolina's 63.6 percent growth rate (equating to 2,414 more participants) also ranked second among states with an NHL team. South Carolina hockey participation increased 14.1 percent, as well.
Only a small portion of the credit can be accurately placed upon the Checkers' arrival, but a boom in Charlotte youth hockey has nonetheless coincided with the recent presence of the team. The Charlotte Metro Hockey Association was founded in 2009; by 2011, participation in the eight-and-younger group doubled and the season-to-season retention rate stood at 97 percent.
Geographical proximity has also yielded dividends for the both the Checkers and Hurricanes.
PNC Arena in Raleigh is 160.5 miles away from Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte—about one-quarter of the 631.2-mile distance between PNC Arena and the Times Union Center in Albany.
In 2013-14 alone, the 'Canes executed 32 transactions between the NHL and AHL. Thus, the ability to transport call-ups to 1400 Edwards Mill Rd. from Charlotte, rather than Albany, cut out 15,000 total miles of charter-bus travel. Assuming an average speed of 50 mph, that's about 300 hours.
Such convenience allowed Carolina's management to twice call up top AHL scorer Zach Boychuk to the NHL for a game night, then re-assign him to the AHL one day later without missing a single Checkers game. Charlotte coach Jeff Daniels accredited Boychuk's impressive campaign (74 points in 69 games) to "consistency," yet the 24-year-old forward was also able to appear in 11 NHL matches along the way.
The presence of hockey in Charlotte's diverse and intense sports spectrum has become increasingly evident in recent years.
The Checkers drew more than 483,000 to minor-league hockey in Charlotte this past season and have filled over two million seats since the move four years ago.
Team apparel can be seen on fans throughout the city during the season—and 'Canes gear is becoming more and more prevalent, too.
The geographic and commercial bond between the two affiliates has never been tighter.