In today’s Mercury News there’s a story by Mark Emmons about Alex Stalock’s return to pro hockey. Stalock recently completed a stint with the Stockton Thunder:
When Sharks training camp opened in September, there was a growing optimism. Stalock skated for the first time. He slowly worked up to a rehab stint with Stockton, a minor league affiliate for the Sharks and Edmonton Oilers, making his return on Jan. 21. -Mercury News
It’s a very good story about a player and a recovery that is just this side of miraculous. Yet Emmons doesn’t mention thename of the minor league. Sigh.
The league’s name is sort of like Ulysses S Grant’s middle name: just initials. Unlike Grant, the league did have a proper name where the initials are: East Coast Hockey League, but nobody calls it that. It’s one of those names that tells you where someone came from but not what or where they are now. “Taylor,” for example: once upon a time, someone in that family was a tailor, probably in England. The odds are pretty slim that this person is actually a tailor in England now.
The ECHL stills plays on the East Coast, but not exclusively. It is probably more noticeable in the West. Hockey fans out here don’t have AHL games to go to. Why do we want a minor league hockey team in the area? Because it may be closer, and tickets are less expensive than NHL tickets. Also, it is fun to find out about a team with a minimum of media instruction.
More than once, Stalock’s time with the Stockton Thunder was referred to as “rehab.” We see a similar term used for NHL players who play a few games in the AHL when returning from injury: “conditioning assignment.” I understand that the minor leagues are less competitive than the NHL. I still have a problem with this theory that playing there is anything like physical therapy. It’s more of an extended fitness test with hazards.
It isn’t a game of shinny, it isn’t merely a training camp. It is professional hockey, a different kind of show for hockey fans. The schedule is more demanding, teams frequently play 3 games in 4 days, back to backs are a matter of course, multi-day layoffs are the norm. Consider what a big deal folks make of an NHL team playing back to back games or having three to four days off between.
A while back, I asked Pat Curcio of the San Francisco Bulls to help me understand how the ECHL fits in the larger scheme of things pro hockey. Curcio was very gracious about answering some of my rookie/unconventional/downright odd questions. He started with some of the similarities between ECHL games and NHL games:
“We adopted the NHL rules right after the NHL lockout in 2005, so we play the exact way the NHL plays, our rules, our referees, everybody calls the game exactly the same, it increases the speed and the skill of the game… if the NHL is doing it, we have to do it, because we’re developing their players.”
The exception would be required equipment that may be optional for NHL players. Curcio assured me that ECHL players have to wear visors, “mouthguards, chinstraps, all that stuff. We make sure that our young players are well protected and well geared.” That made me wonder if he knows how I fret and worry. I don’t remember telling him.
Those “young players” make up the bulk of an ECHL roster. The ECHL limits teams to four veteran players. They define a veteran as a skater (usual special exception for goalies) who has played in 260 or more regular season professional hockey games. The rationale behind this is that the league is meant to develop younger players:
“It gives people a taste of the pro life, playing 72 games in a condensed schedule over 6 1/2 mos. You practice every day, you travel, you’re learning to play on the road, you’re basically gonna get the …lifestyle you’re going to get in the NHL. For players drafted to the NHL and young players progressing, it’s an ideal situation for them to learn exactly how it’s going to be.”
I was of course curious about fighting in the ECHL. I wondered if it might be a problem for marketing hockey in San Francisco as a family activity. Many of us heard about the Worcester Sharks game that got complaints after kids on a school trip told their parents about the fights they’d seen. Or maybe the chaperones complained immediately. Whatever. I asked Curcio to comment on this:
“We want to make sure we’re affordable family entertainment where the families can bring their children and have a night out at an affordable price and have a good time. We’re going to have kids clubs and lots of things for the kids.
“Unfortunately hockey is a physical sport and from time to time there is some fighting but in our league the refs are instructed to get in as quickly as possible to eliminate the fighting and do the different things to try to stop it. Because of the limited roster, where in the NHL a team might have an enforcer that sits on the bench, in our league, you can only dress 18, you sure can’t waste a roster spot on an enforcer that isn’t able to play.”
The Sharks haven’t sent a skater to play in the ECHL in… well… ever as far as I know, not one who came back to the NHL anyway. There are several factors in play here. There’s the NHL contract limit: if the Worcester Sharks are mostly San Jose prospects, that’s two teams of contracts already accounted for. That doesn’t leave many extra players to farm out. There’s also other alternatives for players not ready for the AHL: college hockey and sundry Canadian leagues.
On top of that, the Sharks are not the exclusive NHL affiliate of the Stockton Thunder, the Oilers are there too. This may or may not be a concern for the Sharks, but it does bring up the point that there are not enough ECHL teams to go around:
“..NHL teams, there’s 30 of them, and in our league there’s only 20, next year with our team and Orlando, there will be 22 ECHL teams so some of these teams have to double up. In a perfect world, the NHL would love for us to have 30 teams so every team could have their own affiliate exclusively so that what they’re teaching… they’re also going to teach to their farm team, not have to share it…I think that bodes well for us being a new team because teams will want an exclusive team that’s doing the same things that they’re doing there.”
I asked Curcio what he liked about coaching. His answer touched on something fans might enjoy about following ECHL teams as well as NHL teams:
“I love seeing players develop, I love to have them with us.., helping them and spending time with them and then see them progress. I think that’s one of the most rewarding things. I love it… to watch players that I’ve coached now playing in the NHL. It’s what drives you: to see them succeed.”
The ECHL has an active roster limit of 20 players. That can make things a little tight if and when players get called up, most commonly to AHL teams. I asked if this call-up domino effect was inconvenient:
“It is at times, but the thinking behind it has two factors. One is a cost factor, limiting the number of players you can have on your active roster, keeps the salary cap in check. Two, you don’t have players sitting on the bench not playing. If you’re dressing 18 players, they have to play because you need that many players playing… so they’re going to get the experience of actual playing time.”
So there are hardly any healthy scratches in the ECHL, or for that matter, fourth liners getting only four minutes a night, Curcio explained: “in our league… everyone has to play.”
We can’t know what the San Francisco Bulls will be like, they don’t have a roster yet and can’t put one together until current contracts start expiring. At the very least, with two teams so near each other as Stockton and San Francisco, fans could be looking forward to a quick-start rivalry. That should be worth a look.
(Originally published at Kukla’s Korner.)