After two years of upheaval, 2022 saw a rebirth of sorts in the American Hockey League. Fans were back in their seats en masse, playoffs returned in a more traditional format, and cross-border travel allowed a wider selection of matchups across the league.
Riding out the final swath of COVID-delayed games in late 2021 and early 2022, the AHL reached their Phoenix Phase this year. For the first time since the pandemic started, the league played an entire season with a five-round playoff, with a champion being awarded. Also highlighting this year were an organization shakeup, a new team, and much more.
The Health of the AHL
In 2022, the AHL reached new levels, led by the start of their 32nd franchise: the Coachella Valley Firebirds. Coachella Valley pushed the league to the 32-team mark for the first time. AHL President and CEO Scott Howson sat down with Field Pass Hockey’s AHL podcast, The Holy GrAHL, in October to discuss the health of the league.
As the National Hockey League’s (NHL) top development league, keeping that league happy is a top priority for the AHL. Howson was pleased to share that the NHL is pleased with the way the AHL is situated in 2022:
“We’ve seen increased ownership from NHL teams buying AHL teams. Right now, we have 21 owned by NHL teams and 11 independently owned… I would say to you that our league’s probably as stable ownership-wise as we’ve been in a long, long time, probably market-wise as well. I don’t get the sense that there’s anybody clamoring to move or anything like that… By and large, we’re very stable.” – Howson
Increasing ownership by NHL parent clubs will bring an era of increased stability and longer-term affiliations across the two leagues. That should be music to the ears of fans across the American League. Perhaps limited are the days of teams leaving markets with little notice. Of course, only time will tell there.
What doesn’t seem to be coming to the league anytime soon is divisional realignment, especially in the heavily crowded Pacific. Of course, it’s always on the table, but Howson and the teams in the Pacific seem content with the current makeup:
“Yeah, that’s always the point of discussion. It’s the way the way that Pacific Division was originally started, it gave teams the right to move in. We can realign within the division, but to do it, the league does have the ability to split it into two divisions if we want; but to bring a team out of the Pacific Division and say put them in the Central or somewhere else would require Board approval. It really wouldn’t be fair to those teams that joined that division to play in that division. It (playing in the Pacific Division) was very important to them. We’ll see what goes on 10 teams. The look is unbalanced, and we understand that… If there’s a way to improve it, we will.” – Howson
But it isn’t all sunshine and roses for the AHL or hockey in general. Among numerous scandals across the hockey world in 2022, there was also a severe official shortage across hockey. This shortage is allowing people from underrepresented groups to make their mark. Women, especially, are filling these gaps in growing numbers starting these past 12 months.
“We’re very proud of the fact that we were able to introduce our 10 female officials this year. Last year, we had, I think, seven referees and three linespeople. This year will be nine and two. Kirsten Welsh, who some of you may know, has been added to the NHL prospect list as a linesperson. So, she’ll be doing games again for us. Hopefully she can grow and hopefully at some point, somebody’s going to get to the NHL, and maybe it will be her.” – Howson
All things said, the AHL looks healthy and stable coming out of 2022 and headed into 2023.
2022 Was All About the Western Conference
2022 was a year when literally everyone had a turn at holding a franchise. In a historic year for the league, each NHL team is leaving 2022 with an AHL team in hand, marking the AHL’s first time with 32 teams in play. With no dual affiliations in place, 2022 ushered in an era where more top-level prospects are spending time in the AHL.
Most of those prospects will be coming through the Western Conference, which dominated the headlines in 2022.
The addition of the AHL’s 32nd franchise, the Coachella Valley Firebirds, opened a brand new market in California, just outside Palm Springs. Coachella Valley also made history by hiring the league’s first female assistant coach in Jessica Campbell.
After playing their first game as a team on October 16, 2022, they finally played their first game in Coachella Valley on December 18, 2022, with a 4-3 win over the Tuscon Roadrunners.
The introduction of the Firebirds also ended the Seattle Kraken’s dual affiliation with the Florida Panthers under the Charlotte Checkers banner.
In 2022, Alberta opened their doors to the AHL for the first time since 2005. A 2020-21 trial run became so successful that the Calgary Flames organization pulled their affiliate from Stockton, CA, moving them to Calgary. The team was rebranded as the Calgary Wranglers and is playing strong in their new home.
2022 also saw the first Calder Cup presentation in three years, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chicago Wolves spent the first six months of 2022 running roughshod over the AHL. Through the course of the 21-22 season, they never lost consecutive games in regulation. In the postseason, they only recorded one regulation loss. A master class of roster construction and a top-level coaching system yielded a second straight Calder Cup championship for an affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes. For a franchise whose rink is filled with championship banners, the 2022 Wolves found a way to raise the bar.
In 2022, the AHL said goodbye to multiple legends and friends. We do apologize for any omissions in this list.
Mike Nykoluk (1/31/22) – At 87, Nykoluk left behind a legacy of an AHL Hall of Fame career. In his playing days, he registered 881 points through 1069 games played in the AHL with Hershey and Rochester. He ranks second in league history with career playoff assists (62) and tied for fourth with 112 Calder Cup Playoff games played. He won two championships.
Vladimir Nikiforov (2/17/22) – Nikiforov died at the age of 34, leaving the game of hockey with numerous stints in the OHL, ECHL, and AHL, scoring a goal and four assists with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in 2008-09.
Bryan Marchment (6/6/22) – Marchmemt left behind a long-standing NHL legacy and 89 games with the Moncton Hawks from 1989-1991.
Andre Payette (9/28/22) – Listed at a sturdy 6’1″ and 205 lbs, Payette’s career spanned a great length in the AHL and in Europe. Playing with Philidephia, Rochester, Lowell, Manchester, Houston, and St. John’s, he left the sport of hockey just five years ago in England.
Jim Niekamp (10/10/22) Tidewater, Baltimore, and Cleveland alumni, Niekamp died in October in Pheonix, Arizona, at the age of 76 years old.
Peter McNab (11/6/22) – It didn’t take long for McNab to be called up from the Cincinnati Swords in the 1973-74 season, where he would be inked as a mainstay across many NHL rosters before dying at the age of 70.
Jackie McLeod (12/8/22) – “Shakey” left us too soon in December and left a bookmark with countless IIHF appearances and a brief stint in the AHL and NHL. Playing under the Cincinnati Mohawks, he scored 14 goals and 18 assists in 1951-52.
Barry Cullen (12/16/22) – Just eight days before Christmas, Cullen passed away. He spent six years in the AHL, amassing 279 games under his skates. In total, he tallied 106 goals and 157 assists for the Rochester Americans, Hershey Bears, and Buffalo Bisons.
Now to take a quick look at other headlines across the league in 2022:
Starting the Year Off Wrong
“It is unfair that any player should be subjected to comments or gestures based on their race.”
Imama was also the AHL’s most suspended player on occasion.
Home Sweet Home
Tech CU Arena became the new “Barracuda Tank” when the San Jose-based team moved out of their parent club’s rink and into a new 4,200-seat venue. The team also brought with it new, teal color jerseys.
Tech CU Arena was just one of three brand-new AHL buildings that opened in 2022. Also making their debuts are Acrisure Arena (Coachella Valley) and Dollar Loan Center (Henderson).
It was another year of COVID-19 in the AHL to start in 2022, with the cancellation of the 2022 All-Star Classic for the second straight season. Fear not; Laval will host its promised All-Star Classic in February 2023. Keep an eye here at Field Pass Hockey for coverage live from Laval!
AHL Staff Vote
Field Pass Hockey’s AHL Writers and Photographers have awarded the following honors for 2022:
Skater of the Year
Sam Anas. While with the Springfield Thunderbirds, Anas was awarded the 2022 Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award. Anas set team records in Springfield with 44 assists and 64 points in 2021-22, leading his team in scoring for the third consecutive season. He also reached the 20-goal mark for the third time in his career. This mark was highlighted by the goal he scored on March 5th during the Thunderbirds’ Pink in the Rink Night. This was the first such theme night Anas had participated in since the loss of his mother to breast cancer in 2020. Since joining Hershey in the offseason, he’s tallied 15 points in 29 games.
Coach of the Year
Ryan Warsofsky. After leading his Chicago Wolves to a Calder Cup Championship in 2022, Warsofsky was hired by the San Jose Sharks as an Assistant Coach. He spent four years in the AHL as both an assistant and head coach with the Charlotte Checkers and Wolves. Just 35, he’s incredibly young and making waves as a coach. Just solid all-around work in 2022.
Goalie of the Year
Pyotr Kochetkov.-He didn’t spend much time in the AHL, but he was an easy choice for our 2022 Goalie of the Year. Kochetkov burst onto the scene for the Chicago Wolves in 2022, capturing the imaginations of the AHL and NHL alike. Along with Alex Lyon, he helped backstop the Wolves to a well-earned Calder Cup.
His mix of personality, toughness, and amazing talent kept us entertained and awe-struck all year long. Simply put, this has been his year!
Organization of the Year
The Springfield Thunderbirds. 2022 was overall very kind to the Thunderbirds. Backed by some gritty and clutch playing in the back half of the 2021-22 season, the Thunderbirds enjoyed its first-ever trip to the Calder Cup Playoffs. This was the city’s first berth in the Finals in 31 years. The organization and fans were very generous in 2022, raising money for cancer charities, collecting 6,083 stuffed animals for local charities, and donating over $10,000 to Open Pantry of Springfield, among other charitable efforts.
AHL Person of the Year
Kyle Mace, Social Media Content Creator with the Hershey Bears. Mace, son of 2005-06 James H. Ellery Award winner, Gregg Mace, is one of the leaders of team social content in the AHL. Basically, if you see video content coming out of Hershey, Mace is behind it! He was a no-brainer for this honor with his dedication to the Bears and keeping their fans engaged with great content.
Skating into 2023
As the calendar closes on 2022 in the AHL, the league has plenty of promise and marquee events to look forward to in 2023. In the opening months, they will welcome back the All-Star Classic in Laval, Quebec, and an outdoor game in Cleveland, Ohio. Of course, the chaos of jockeying for playoff spots is a story all in itself. Stay locked on Field Pass Hockey as we cover all the action as it happens in 2023!
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