Merger Between IHL And AHL Unlikely

May 15, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — A meeting between the commissioners of North America’s three top hockey leagues highlighted the business agenda for the International Hockey League Board of Governors, which met recently in Chicago.

National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman called IHL Commissioner Doug Moss and American Hockey League Commissioner David Andrews together to discuss whether the two leagues would create some sort of a working relationship, or possibly even merge.

The meeting was held days before both leagues held their separate meetings. Bettman wanted in on the discussion as teams in both minor pro leagues have player-affiliation agreements with NHL franchises.

“Instead of beating each other up, we should be organizing together,” Moss was quoted as saying in the Edmonton Journal before the meeting. “If there was a way to put it together — a merger or a joint venture — that might make the most sense.”

But following the meeting, a report filed in the Schenectady Gazette had Andrews pretty much nixing the idea of any business relationship, including a merger, ever happening between the 11-team IHL and the 22-franchise AHL.

“It is absolutely business as usual for the American Hockey League. There is no plan in place for any other structure to be formed or anything of that nature,” said Andrews.

“We have been clear and concise on the point from the very beginning. We have not discussed a merger, we are not discussing a merger, and we are not interested in a merger,” added Andrews, who was named by the Hockey News as one of the industry’s 100 People of Power and Influence.

The Gazette story also reported that Andrews wants to add two more Midwest franchises to provide support for AHL teams in Kentucky and Ohio, and that some IHL clubs in the region have quietly expressed an interest in jumping to the AHL.

Dan DeVos, majority owner of the Grand Rapids Griffins and the franchise’s governor, told the Business Journal that not much in the way of news emerged from that meeting.

“It was an ongoing discussion, just like the ones we have with other teams. As an industry, they’re trying to talk a little bit more as to where this industry is at and where we think it’s going,” said DeVos, who also owns the Kansas City Blades with his wife, Pamella.

“It makes sense to talk,” he added.

When asked whether a merger with the AHL would make him happy, DeVos had this response: “What would make me happy is continuing to solidify the minor league hockey world and continue to provide, in the cities that I work in, the very best quality hockey we can,” he said. “That’s always been what I’ve wanted to do, and that is why everybody keeps talking. We want to make it better for everybody.”

DeVos left the governor’s meeting feeling that all 11 IHL franchises were in decent financial shape, and that all should be back next season. But he noted that each club also had a list of things that need attention and correction.

“There is always the potential for the unknown to have an effect. But right now, everyone is making their plans and we’re talking about scheduling for next year. Everybody is pretty focused on getting done what they need to get done,” he said.

“There wasn’t talk of changes coming up, or anything like that.”

A few Canadian reports had the IHL adding a franchise or two within the next few years. DeVos said there has been some interest in the league from medium-sized markets that are getting new arenas. He also said the IHL has received feelers from a couple of existing franchises that operate in other leagues. But DeVos said there was nothing concrete to report, yet.

“The talks are too preliminary, and they’re talking to everybody else,” he said.

DeVos did remark that the IHL product is why others are looking at the league.

“I think the fact that we have a strong relationship with the National Hockey League and that we provide the best hockey besides the NHL are draws. That is something that other people focus on. It’s just the quality of the product that we put on the ice.”

Last month, the Edmonton Journal reported that the NHL Oilers considered moving its AHL affiliate from Hamilton, Ontario. One possible destination may be Winnipeg, home of the IHL’s Manitoba Moose. Moose President Mark Chipman reportedly spoke with Oilers President Patrick LaForge about leaving the AHL and affiliating with Manitoba.

The Journal said that LaForge preferred to keep the franchise in Hamilton, but added that he felt the IHL was becoming a solid developmental league for the NHL.

As for the overall state of the IHL, DeVos said the league’s business condition was in relatively good shape and comparable to any other minor pro league, considering the general dip being experienced throughout much of the sports-entertainment industry.

“We’re facing some declining attendance, some change of focus, some change in society of how it works,” he said, “And those are the type of things that we’re trying to address in a new and different way.”           

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