Given the devastating amount of injuries incurred by this year's M.A.S.H. unit of the Carolina Hurricanes, you'll have to forgive Albany River Rats fans for wondering if their AHL team isn't already in North Carolina. After the rumblings came down last week pertaining to the future of the AHL franchise and its possible sale/relocation/affiliation change to Charlotte, it appears as though the Rats are in need of some creativity when it comes to preserving AHL hockey in Albany, NY.
To give some back story for those who don't know, the Rats have been in Albany since 1993 when the Devils uprooted their farm club from Utica, NY and set up shop for 13 years. After a relationship which saw a Calder Cup, division title runs and over 100 players called up to the NHL in the early years and an unprecedented playoff drought, the Rats in 2006 changed over to Carolina. While the change has been good from the standpoint of solid, competitive hockey (the Rats have 55 points as of this writing) it appears that with their affiliation contract up that the Canes want their AHL squad closer to home and the Rats are in need of a new ownership group with longtime owner and franchise savior Walter Robb in his 80's.
So where do the River Rats go from here in keeping the AHL in Albany? Well the River Rats could remain and change affiliation once again with an infusion of new local ownership and corporate sponsors/businesses stepping up, perhaps someone such as Price Chopper super market chain mogul Neil Golub. Another would be for an NHL owned AHL franchise to uproot and run the club in Albany.
In what would be another by proxy Peter Karmanos harpoon to Hartford fans, one scenario has the New York Rangers affiliate the Hartford Wolfpack, owned by MSG to the state capitol. So in essence when one does the accounting for all the moving pieces and six degrees of separation, the Hartford Whalers move to Carolina, the AHL Binghamton Rangers (Binghamton which by the way used to be a Hartford Whalers AHL affiliate, the Binghamton Whalers) move to Hartford, the Hurricanes AHL affiliate in Albany moves to Charlotte replacing the Rangers ECHL affiliate the Charlotte Checkers and the Rangers AHL farm club moves from Hartford to Albany. You follow all of that?
Having the Rangers top farm club in Albany would automatically boost attendance, given the proximity of the team and the strong fan base. Heck there's already enough people who show up and stupidly root for Hartford just because they're the Rangers affiliate rather than rooting for the hometown Albany squad. Additionally from a personal standpoint, I don't know about you but after losing the Eastern League AA Albany Colonie Yankees and original CBA Albany Patroons to the state of Connecticut, this would be a nice little power play would it not?
There are of course other scenarios involving teams whose affiliation contracts are also up at season's end. The Buffalo Sabres according to the NHL's television agreement (just ask the fans around here of the metro New York area teams) are the primary team here and after decades in Rochester and with their current agreement up with the Portland Pirates, bringing the Sabres top affiliate back to upstate New York would likely engender some palpable excitement. As far as other long-shot local connections, the Lowell Devils owned by New Jersey, while competitive this season are drawing barely over 2,000 people per game and the New York Islanders whose AHL club the Capital District Islanders played at RPI from 1990-1993, currently situated in Bridgeport, Conn. could be another local get as well.
In my opinion having a Rangers or Sabres affiliate would obviously create the most buzz and really create a surge in interest and attendance where fans of those teams would really connect in seeing their players skating one night in the "A" and the next night on TV on MSG.
For any outside teams, like for instance the Anaheim Ducks who don't have a primary affiliate or the Columbus Blue Jackets whose contract with the Syracuse Crunch expires at the conclusion of this season, again it's going to take local businesses to step up to the face-off circle and really show a strong commitment to fans and pro minor league sports in this area.
It took the River Rats and Mr. Robb who have taken losses and have gone to great lengths to keep AHL hockey in Albany, to be the one's who stepped up an led the charge to bring AHL hockey back to Glens Falls after a decade long hiatus following the Adirondack Red Wings departure after the 1998-99 campaign. This coming off the heals of ESPN's Barry Melrose and Steve Levy trying to reignite hockey in the north country. So far this season even with the last minute season ticket drive, the revival of AHL hockey in Glens Falls has been a successful venture much to the delight of AHL Commissioner David Andrews.
The example of the Adirondack Phantoms (top farm club of the Philadelphia Flyers) just goes to show what can happen if local businesses are willing to step up, take a shot, take a risk and have faith that it if done right it has worked in the past and will work out in the future. With AHL hockey having been in Albany for 17 years now after various teams have bolted town, it stands to reason that if done right there's no reason why there can't be 17 more where that came from.