The COVID-19 crisis forced the American Hockey League to have another season of change, and there will be at least one more change coming when the 2021-2022 campaign is completed, with some kind of playoff format that has yet to be established, according to Bryan Helmer, Vice President of Hockey Operations for the Hershey Bears.
“I was not part of the meetings that included 10 people, but I have talked to many of them to express our feelings, because we have a terrific fan base and would really like to play 80 games,” said Helmer. “The league voted to go with the different games played totals for the 2021-2022 season as a buffer year to satisfy as many teams as possible, knowing there will be another change coming the following year with another team coming in Palm Springs for the 2022-23 campaign that will have every team playing a 72-game schedule.”
“This coming season, we will be back in the Atlantic Division with teams like it was before, so our travel will be pretty much the same except we will play some teams in the North Division, which I think is a good thing for the players and the fans,” added Helmer. “Travel, especially for the following season, is the big thing that will have to be discussed at our summer meetings.”
When questioned about Charlotte returning to the league, after sitting out this past year, Helmer said, “I don’t know how the rumor that Charlotte would not be returning got started, but it didn’t occur, and I’m happy about that because we really enjoy going there.”
“We’d absolutely love to play the Central and Pacific teams, but this season we’re just happy to playing more than three different teams,” added Helmer.
The previous season, and again this one, the Bears had all the makings of a long playoff run, that was sidelined both times by the virus shutdown that brought this comment from Helmer: “Everyone was disappointed again that we weren’t able to make a run for the Calder Cup, but as far as this past season we were successful and were able to get almost all of our games in to finish as the top team.
” ‘Carbs’ (Hershey head coach Spencer Carbery) also got recognition, as did a few of the guys, so over all I’d say we did well,” said Helmer.
Carbery, the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award winner as the AHL’s outstanding coach for the 2020-21 season, had this to say about why some teams will play 76 games, some will have 72 and still others only 68: “What came to my mind when I saw the lists is that this is a compromise for a year to get all of us to the same number of 72 the next season, but we really have had the different number of games compared to the Pacific Division for several years.”
“The new team in Palm Springs next year will affect the Pacific Division that would have 10 teams and the Central Division, that now has seven,” continued Carbery. “I would think that means some of the 17 teams involved will have to bite the bullet and do a bit more traveling. I think that with Seattle coming into the NHL we will have the same number of teams in the AHL, but there could be some moving around, which is what happened this season. Over the last 10 years the NHL teams have bought their AHL operations and have made moves to another area, often to be closer together if possible.”
Under Carbery’s guidance, the Bears finished atop the AHL standings with a record of 24-7-2-0, this season, a .758 points percentage that ranks as the second-highest mark in the franchise’s 83-year history. Hershey, which lost in regulation just once on home ice all season (14-1-2-0), allowed a league-low 2.33 goals per game in 2020-21 and ranked eighth in scoring (3.33).
One thing that will be returning that is not a favorite topic of coaches and players is the dreaded three-games-in-three-weekend-days scenario that affected the Bears more than most team.
“The league and Helms do an excellent job of coming up with drafts of looking for those situations where we have to get on the bus for several hours, then play a game at one o’clock when it could maybe be played later,” Carbery said. “Another possibility is that games get scrapped and we play some other team that is closer, but this getting home at two in the morning and playing again at one doesn’t sit well with the player’s union or the NHL clubs.
“Another thing is the financial part of it, because everyone wants weekend games to get as many people in the building as possible, while also managing the schedule, and that’s where the NHL teams are trying to balance the financial side of it, in addition to the development component of it,” Carbery continued. “I can tell you the NHL teams are not fond of having their prospects play three games in 2 ½ days.”
Closing with a positive outlook, Carbery pointed out, “There are so many different things in play that need to be handled, but the important thing is that the plan is to have a full regular season, with an expanded number of teams making the playoffs this season. Overall I feel this is a good compromise, until we can get to where everyone wants it to be with everyone playing the same amount of games that will be a good for the league.”
The teams playing 76 games include Chicago, Cleveland, Grand Rapids, Hershey, Lehigh Valley, Milwaukee, Rochester, Springfield, Syracuse and Wilkes-Barre-Scranton. Playing 72 games are Belleville, Bridgeport, Charlotte, Hartford, Iowa, Laval, Manitoba, Providence, Rockford, Texas, Toronto and Utica.
The 68-game schedule is for Abbotsford, Bakersfield, Colorado, Henderson, Ontario, San Diego, San Jose, Stockton and Tucson, with Palm Springs added for 2022-23.