By Cleve Dheensaw
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007
VICTORIA, British Columbia – Brian McKenna, the amiable and soft-spoken commissioner of the ECHL, said the talent level in the league may have surprised the Victoria Salmon Kings when they entered in 2004-05.
But now at 5-2 early in the 2007-08 season, the club has proven to be a steady learner.
“They [Salmon Kings] have certainly come a long way from their first year in the league,” McKenna told a local media scrum, during a visit to Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre for a game over the weekend.
“They may have initially underestimated the talent level in this league. But they have done a great job over the past couple of years addressing that. Getting the affiliation with Vancouver [NHL Canucks] and Manitoba [AHL Moose] has helped. Now you see a very competitive product on the ice.”
McKenna, in his sixth year as commissioner, tries to visit each ECHL market at least once a season.
He reiterated his league makes no apologies in positioning itself as the main developmental feeder league to the AHL, which in turn is the main feeder league to the NHL. That means an emphasis on young players fresh out of junior or the NCAA. Those who bring up that old Slapshot stereotype of the washed-up has-beens, just don’t get it and are seriously misinformed about the ‘E.’
“With the four-veteran maximum limit [per team], it means you have to turn over your team and make room each year to bring in three or four or five first-year players,” noted McKenna.
“On balance, [NHL] affiliations do help in putting a competitive team on the ice and helping your recruiting effort. If you are affiliated [22 of the 25 ECHL teams have NHL affiliations], players are more apt to go to your market because they see an opportunity to be seen and move up.”
McKenna added the ECHL salary cap — $11,200 US per week — has an important leveling effect in the league and keeps owners from attempting to become mini Steinbrenners.
“The cap helps teams. Regardless of the size of their markets, teams should be able to go out and recruit a competitive squad,” said McKenna, former director of hockey operations for the Ottawa Senators.
It took Victoria two horrendous seasons, followed by a slow start last season, to finally get its act together in making the playoffs for the first time last spring after a late-season rally. McKenna said he likes what the Salmon Kings organization has done to turn things around.
“I see continued improvement in game presentation. And the on-ice product is much better,” said McKenna.
“The facility [Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre] has certainly helped, as well, and it’s a great atmosphere in this building with a solid core base of fans. And the fact the team is competitive now is going to attract additional fans for the future. We’re bullish on what’s going on in Victoria and the improvement that has been made.”
The Salmon Kings have also lucked out with the sudden strength of the loonie.
“The change in the Canadian dollar will have a positive impact on the bottom line of the [Salmon Kings] team,” noted McKenna.
Yet it’s clear that minor-pro hockey will remain a largely U.S.-based aspect of the North American hockey business. Victoria is the lone Canadian ECHL team and there are only three Canadian AHL franchises.
“We have no plans to expand aggressively in Canada,” said McKenna, himself a Canadian from Prince Edward Island.
But as far as the lone Canadian content he does have in the ‘E,’ it could be spawning time for these Salmon after several difficult years of swimming upstream.