ECHL Opens 21st Season On Friday

The ECHL drops the puck for its 21st season on Friday when 14 teams face off in seven games. The Premier ‘AA’ Hockey League will play 11 games on Saturday and concludes opening weekend with two games on Sunday.

The third-longest tenured professional hockey league in North America behind only the National Hockey League and the American Hockey League, the ECHL will play 828 games from coast-to-coast between Oct. 17 and Apr. 4. Began in 1988-89 with five teams in four states the league has grown to 23 teams playing in 16 states and British Columbia in 2008-09. The ECHL had 3,756,191 fans in the regular season in 2007-08, marking the fifth straight season and the 11th time in the last 12 years that it has exceeded 3.75 million fans.

Florida and new coach Malcolm Cameron open their 11th season on Friday against Charlotte. The Everblades have qualified for the Kelly Cup Playoffs in each of their first 10 seasons and have finished first or second in attendance, including leading the league a record five straight seasons from 2000-05, the last eight years.

The Checkers, who have advanced to the postseason each of the last four years, have had 15 crowds over 9,000 since moving to Time Warner Cable Arena, including a team record 12,256 on Feb. 23. Charlotte will be the last team to play its home opener when it hosts Augusta on Oct. 31.

Augusta will have new uniforms and a new head coach, John Marks, when they host Mississippi on Friday. The Lynx, who have advanced to the Kelly Cup Playoffs three straight seasons for the first time since 1999-2001, raised their attendance by 10.9 percent last year.

Mississippi, which returned to the ice in 2007-08 after missing two seasons in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and had its largest attendance since 2001-02, will host Charlotte in its home opener on Oct. 24.

Trenton will open its 10th season in New Jersey’s capital city on Friday when it hosts Johnstown, one of the original five teams in the league. The Chiefs, who are the only team that has played every season in the same city, will play their 21st home opener at Cambria County War Memorial Arena on Saturday when they host Wheeling.

Elmira, which had a league-leading 14 sellouts as an expansion team in 2007-08, will open its second season on Friday when it hosts Reading. The game is a rematch of the North Division Semifinals which the Royals won in six games.

Reading, which lost in seven games to Kelly Cup champion Cincinnati in the North Division Finals, will host Johnstown in its home opener on Oct. 25. The Royals, the City of Reading and the Sovereign Center will host the 17th Annual ECHL All-Star Game on Jan. 21, 2009 and the 12th Annual All-Star Skills Competition on Jan. 20, 2009.

Wheeling opens its 17th season when it hosts Cincinnati on Friday, the same day that Phoenix will host Victoria in its home opener.

Cincinnati will raise their Kelly Cup and Brabham Cup championship banners at U.S. Bank Arena on Oct. 25 when they host in-state rival Dayton. Cincinnati had 115 points and 55 wins in 2007-08, the second-most points and wins in the 20-year history of the league behind Louisiana’s 116 points and 56 wins in 2001-02. The Cyclones led professional hockey in 2007-08 with a 36.8 percent attendance increase. Cincinnati had a team record crowd of 9,615 for their final regular season home game and a league record standing-room-only crowd of 12,722 watching when the won the Kelly Cup.

Victoria, which reached the Kelly Cup Playoff for the second straight year and posted its first series win, will host Stockton in their home opener on Oct. 24. The Salmon Kings finished first in the West Division in 2007-08 and set team records with 42 wins, 24 home wins, 18 road wins and 91 points.

The last game of opening night will have defending National Conference champion Las Vegas playing at Alaska. The Aces have reached the Kelly Cup Playoffs in each of their first five seasons, winning the Kelly Cup in 2006 while reaching the conference finals in 2005 and 2007. The Wranglers, who host Ontario in their season opener on Oct. 23, are the only ECHL team to have three consecutive 100-points seasons.

Dayton opens its 18th season when its hosts Cincinnati on Saturday while Gwinnett hosts Mississippi to begin its sixth season. The Bombers have advanced to the Kelly Cup Playoffs each of the last two seasons and have raised their attendance the last three years. The Gladiators, who have reached the Kelly Cup Playoffs in each of their first five seasons, raised their attendance for the third season while having four crowds of 10,000 or more in 2007-08.

South Carolina opens its 16th season on Saturday when it hosts Augusta. The Stingrays, who had a team record crowd of 10,565 when they hosted the Lynx on Jan. 19, reached the Kelly Cup Playoffs for a record 14th time and won three Game 5s in a row to reach the conference finals.

Bakersfield, which has reached the Kelly Cup Playoffs the last four seasons, will host the newest ECHL member, the Ontario Reign, on Saturday. Ontario will play their first home game on Oct. 25 when they host Las Vegas at the new state-of-the-art Citizens Business Bank Arena, a $130 million multi-purpose facility with 9,736 seats.

Idaho, which has two Kelly Cup championships and a league-leading 38 sellouts in its first five seasons, will host Utah on Saturday. The Grizzlies, who advanced to the conference finals last season, will host Alaska in their season opener on Oct. 24.

Stockton, which has reached the postseason each of the last two seasons, will open the season at home for the first time when it hosts Fresno on Saturday. The Thunder have had 12 sellouts and have led the ECHL in attendance each of their first three seasons. Fresno, which had the largest regular season crowd in the league in 2007-08 with 12,590 on Feb. 9, will host Bakersfield in its home opener on Oct. 24.

Charlotte, Cincinnati, Johnstown and Ontario are each involved in three home openers, their own and two on the road. Charlotte visits Florida on Oct. 17 and Mississippi on Oct. 24 before hosting Augusta on Oct. 31. Cincinnati travels to Wheeling on Oct. 17 and Dayton on Oct. 18 before hosting Dayton on Oct. 25. Johnstown plays at Trenton on Oct. 17 and hosts Wheeling on Oct. 18 before visiting Reading on Oct. 25 while Ontario will play at Bakersfield on Oct. 18 and at Las Vegas on Oct. 23 before playing their first home game on Oct. 25 against Las Vegas.