By Cleve Dheensaw
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008
VICTORIA, British Columbia – The ECHL, a minor league, ended last season on a major note. The Cincinnati Cyclones, farm team of the Montreal Canadiens, hoisted the 2008 Kelly Cup before 12,722 fans at the U.S. Bank Arena after winning the best-of-seven final 4-2 over the Calgary Flames-affiliate Las Vegas Wranglers.
The 2008-09 season of the far-flung North American minor-professional hockey league began this weekend, with the Victoria Salmon Kings in Phoenix taking on the RoadRunners at U.S. Airways Center in a three-game set which concludes Sunday.
The defending West Division-champion Salmon Kings open at home on Friday at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre against the Edmonton Oilers-affiliate Stockton Thunder of California.
Salmon Kings president Dave Dakers remains keen on the league and his fifth-year franchise, which has qualified for the Kelly Cup playoffs the last two seasons after being left out in the cold in the club’s first two seasons in the ‘E.’
“We haven’t played at home yet this season, but based on last season, our core audience seems to be enjoying what we are doing,” said Dakers, who is essentially Salmon Kings’ owner and Vancouverite Graham Lee’s right-hand man in Victoria.
He pointed to last season’s final to illustrate how the ECHL has grown in respect, both on the Island and in other markets. It is considered the top Double-A pro hockey league in North America after the major-league NHL and Triple-A level AHL.
The three 2008 Kelly Cup finals games last May in Las Vegas averaged 7,124 fans and the three in Cincinnati 9,431.
“There was overall buy-in by both sets of fans — and these are sophisticated, major markets, and it shows how the ECHL is maturing,” said Dakers, last spring, and he hasn’t changed his tune this fall.
There has been speculation in the hockey world about the AHL, one step up from the ECHL in the pro-hockey chain, perhaps in the future swooping into attractive ECHL markets. Victoria would certainly be one of those, especially with its proximity to the NHL-parent Vancouver Canucks.
The Salmon Kings averaged 4,871 fans last season over 36 regular-season home dates at the Memorial Centre and 5,851 over five home playoff games. Both figures were franchise records.
“We’re becoming more entrenched in the marketplace and a respected part of the community,” said Dakers.
“In our first two seasons, all the talk was ‘Are the Salmon Kings even going to be here tomorrow or the next season?’ Now people realize we are here for the long haul and they also realize the value in what we are doing.”
Dakers points to what he described as a successful summer.
“We had a great off-season in terms of season-ticket renewals,” he beamed.
“We held our base and even saw 10 per cent growth. Our season ticket base is hovering around 2,500.”
What the ECHL does best is help develop talent that is promising but unable to make an immediate impact at the NHL or AHL level because of youthfulness or inexperience. The Manitoba Moose are the AHL affiliate and the Salmon Kings the ECHL affiliate in the Canucks’ minor-pro system.
For instance, due to mid- and late-round Canucks NHL draft picks or rookie-pro free-agent signings this decade which targeted Quebec Major Junior League players such as Marc-Andre Bernier, F.P. Guenette, Julien Ellis and Patrick Coulombe, the Salmon Kings have had a strong QMJHL component with one corner of the home team dressing room at the Memorial Centre that could be labeled the French Quarter.
Coulombe is in some ways an ECHL case study. At 23, he has already played in the ECHL, AHL and seven games with the Canucks. He is exactly the kind of player the ECHL looks to develop. The mobile blueliner, who set up Sidney Crosby in junior at Rimouski with the Oceanic, is not known as a hard case, but fellow Salmon Kings teammate and QMJHL-product Labelle said Coulombe is among the most difficult defencemen to come in on.
“I’ve played a lot against Patrick in junior and pro, and he can make you look bad,” said Labelle, now on AHL contract to the Moose after splitting last season between the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL and Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL in the New York Islanders’ system.
“I would rather go in on a big, slow defender than a guy like Paddy.”
Now Coulombe must prove he belongs in the AHL, which is what playing in the ‘E’ is all about for most of these skaters.
And NHL GMs are noticing. Darryl Sutter of the Calgary Flames was in Las Vegas last spring to scout his Wranglers farm team in the Kelly Cup final while Brian Burke was in Bakersfield over the summer to announce the Condors are the new ECHL farm club of the Anaheim Ducks. Just in case you missed the point, the New Jersey Devils last season renamed their ECHL farm team the Trenton Devils from the Trenton Titans.
They are being watched in the ‘E.’ The rest is up to the players. Nobody can climb that ladder for them.
About The ECHL
– The league officially changed its name to ECHL from East Coast Hockey League on May 19, 2003.
– The ECHL celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2007-08 and is the third-longest tenured professional hockey league, behind the National Hockey League and the American Hockey League.
– The ECHL has affiliations with 26 of the 30 teams in the National Hockey League, marking the 12th consecutive season that the league has had affiliations with at least 20 NHL teams.
– Former ECHL coaches working as head coaches in the NHL: Bruce Boudreau of the Washington Capitals, Scott Gordon of the New York Islanders and Peter Laviolette of the Carolina Hurricanes. Boudreau, who coached Mississippi for three seasons, winning the Kelly Cup in 1999, was named NHL Coach of the Year in 2007-08 becoming the first former ECHL coach to win the award. Laviolette, who began his coaching career with the Wheeling Nailers, led the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup in 2006.
– There have been 359 former ECHL players who have gone on to play in the NHL — 102 of them have moved up in the last four seasons, including a record 47 in 2005-06.
– In 2008, Aaron Downey of the Detroit Red Wings made it eight consecutive years in which the ECHL was represented on the NHL championship team.
– ECHL has affiliations with 25 of the 29 teams in the American Hockey League and for the past 19 years there has been an ECHL player on the Calder Cup champion.
– More than 66 million fans have attended over 15,000 games since the ECHL began in 1988-89 with five teams in three U.S. states.