While the American Hockey League was pondering a path for resuming play following the March 12 league-wide suspension of the season due to the coronavirus pandemic, Hershey Bears coach Spencer Carbery found himself in the same position as his 30 other counterparts around the country.
They all knew the outlook for resuming the season was grim.
On Monday, Carbery received the deflating news of the league’s official decision to cancel the remainder of the season.
“I told my wife when I was sending the message to the entire team and letting them know that we weren’t going to be able to finish out the season, it was tough,” Carbery said.
The Bears, through 62 contests this year, sported a 37-18-4 record and remained just one game behind Atlantic Division leader Providence when their season ended on March 8. The 2019-20 season will conclude without a Calder Cup champion for the first time since the AHL’s inception in 1936.
While Carbery agrees with the league’s decision, he said it still doesn’t soften the blow left from the uncertainty of what could have been this season.
“I understand you have to keep things in perspective, and I understand what’s going on in the world and there’s more important things than hockey and sports right now, but also, I feel like and believe like this team could have done something really special,” he said. “It’s really unfortunate that we’re not going to be able to finish the job and get an opportunity to win a Calder Cup, and that’s probably what hurts the most.”
Bryan Helmer, vice president of hockey operations for the Hershey Bears, was in talks with league brass several days before Monday’s official announcement.
“Right up to that point, I still had my fingers crossed and was hoping that we would get some type of hockey back for the ‘19-20 season,” Helmer said. “After that call, it was almost like I lost my best friend. It was really tough. The type of team we had was pretty special, starting with Spencer and his coaching staff and what they were doing with the team and how close the team became not just on the ice, but off the ice.”
The Lehigh Valley Phantoms are Atlantic League Division mates with the Bears. Their AHL affiliates with the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Phantoms ended their season with a 24-28-3-7 record through 62 games. They played their last game on March 11.
Lehigh Valley Phantoms executive vice president Chris Porreca said one of the immediate impacts of the shortened season will be financial, however, he added an active Phantoms fan base should help to ensure that impact shouldn’t be long-lasting. The club has already reached out to its season-ticket holder base to discuss the options they’ll have for the seven canceled games.
“Where it affects you is you’ve lost seven games,” Porreca said. “So there’s a financial burden to the organization. But I think that we’re in a good situation. We’ve had successful seasons leading up to this year. We’ll do our best to move forward. We’re already focused on next year, and we’ve had a lot of people who had already signed up and are paying for their tickets for next year. We’ll start to hopefully sell some new season tickets in the next month or so here.”
The AHL’s 2020-21 season is scheduled to begin in October, and league’s teams will play 76 games during the regular season. Like Minor League Baseball, much of AHL teams’ revenues are generated through ticket sales. Playing games in fan-less venues such as the Phantoms’ PPL Center in Allentown or Hershey’s Giant Center.
The Phantoms attracted 293,352 fans during 38 games (7,720 per game) in 2018-19 to the PPL Center. Lehigh Valley finished seventh in the AHL in attendance that season.
Hershey during the 2018-19 season drew an AHL-best 338,452 fans (8,903 per home game) to its home ice in 38 games.
“Obviously, our league is gate-driven, and we want to have our fans – we have the best fans in the American Hockey League,” Helmer said. “It’s going to be an on-going thing, and the virus is actually going to be the one that dictates everything. I know from talking with (AHL president David Andrews) and the other executives that they’re going to put a task force together with NHL GMs and AHL executives to stay on top of things and come up with different scenarios. They’re going to keep us in the know… They almost over-communicate with us, which is a good thing.”
Carbery added there will be financial ramifications if the season gets pushed back.
“What they’re trying to figure out if the NHL doesn’t play – the NHL players next year, what is their escrow? All that stuff that’s a little bit out of my realm,” Carbery said. “But (it’s) exactly accurate to say that this could have ramifications farther than just missing games or pushing the season off with pay, with ticket sales and all that stuff that goes into so many different avenues.”
While the shortened season will impact each team’s finances, the effect will spill over to on-ice development of players. As AHL players have ambitions to one day reach the AHL, the break from action isn’t exactly welcomed by all. For some, though, it could prove beneficial for their long-term longevity.
“They’re professionals, so I think there are expectations from them, and it just depends on the player how that will affect them,” Porreca said. “I think some players, it will probably be good for them, and some players, it might not be. It just depends on how they were during the season… You get nicked up in hockey, so for them, it might not be the end of the line.”