The 33rd season of the ECHL begins with Opening Weekend presented by GEICO on Friday with five games and continues with five additional games on Saturday.
Friday’s opening night comes nine months to the day of the final games of the 2019-20 Season, which ended prematurely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Began in 1988-89 with five teams in four states, the ECHL has grown into a coast-to-coast league that has 26 teams in 19 states and two Canadian provinces. The ECHL is the third-longest tenured professional hockey league behind only the National Hockey League and the American Hockey League.
The five games set for Friday night include a pair of intrastate battles with South Carolina hosting Greenville and Jacksonville visiting Florida. Other matchups are Kansas City traveling to Indy, Tulsa entertaining Wichita and Utah visiting Rapid City.
Opening Weekend presented by GEICO continues with three teams hosting home openers on Saturday. Jacksonville welcomes Greenville, Wheeling hosts Indy and Tulsa takes on Allen.
New faces behind the benches
Four new coaches are in place to lead teams during the 2020-21 Season.
Andrew Lord is the new head coach in Greenville, marking his first season coaching in North America. The 35-year-old played parts of three seasons in the ECHL with Wheeling from 2008-11 before heading overseas. He has spent the last six seasons as head coach for Cardiff in the Elite Ice Hockey League, leading the Devils to an overall record of 202-75-41 and three Conference championships, two Challenge Cup championships, two League titles and two Playoff championships.
In Kansas City, Tad O’Had assumes the head-coaching reins after serving as associate coach for the Florida Everblades over the previous seven seasons. O’Had was part of the Everblades’ Brabham Cup championship in 2017-18, an Eastern Conference championship in 2018, two South Division titles, six playoff appearances and a .699 winning percentage.
After spending last season as the club’s assistant coach, Ryan Blair takes over as head coach for South Carolina after 2019-20 ECHL Coach of the Year Steve Bergin accepted a coaching position at Sacred Heart University. Prior to joining the Stingrays, Blair held the Director of Hockey Operations position with the UMass-Lowell during the 2018-19 season. He also had a three-year professional playing career in the ECHL from 2011-14.
Taking over as head coach in Wheeling is Mark French, who returns to the ECHL for the first time since serving as assistant coach for Atlantic City in 2004-05. He went on to serve as head coach for Wichita in the Central Hockey League and Hershey in the American Hockey League, leading the Bears to the 2010 Calder Cup title after setting the AHL record with 60 wins during the regular season. French compiled a 180-100-32 record with Hershey and his .627 winning percentage ranks third in AHL history among coaches with at least 300 games. After departing Hershey, French has served as a head coach in the Western Hockey League, the KHL and the National League in Switzerland.
Wheeling’s Michael Pelech enters the 2020-21 season fourth on the league’s all-time games played list at 705. With 67 games played, he would pass Louis Dumont for third place in league history. Pelech’s 372 assists ranks sixth in ECHL history, and he needs 28 assists to become just the third player in league history to reach the 400-assist mark in his career. Pelech sits 21st all-time with 541 points as he looks to become only the eighth player all-time to reach 600 career points.