Significant economic and logistical hurdles created by the coronavirus have officially ended the Rochester Americans' hopes of winning their first Calder Cup since 1996.
After weeks of speculation and a call with its board of governors, the American Hockey League announced Monday it has canceled the remainder of the 2019-20 regular season and Calder Cup Playoffs. The league, which suspended play March 12, came to the decision partly because its 31 teams rely on revenue from ticket sales and in-arena sponsorships, neither of which will be available if fans are unable to attend games.
The Americans, the Buffalo Sabres' top minor-league affiliate, were second in the AHL's North Division with a 33-20-9 record and on track to qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs for a third consecutive season. An early end to the season will prevent prospects such as former eighth overall draft pick Casey Mittelstadt from earning valuable playoff experience.
This is also the first step in the AHL's plan to ensure long-term economic stability. While the four major professional sports leagues receive significant revenue from television broadcasting contracts, minor leagues such as the AHL will have to consider how they will operate if fans cannot attend games next season.
“After a lengthy review process, the American Hockey League has determined that the resumption and completion of the 2019-20 season is not feasible in light of current conditions," AHL President David Andrews said in a statement. "The league’s operational focus has turned toward actively preparing for the 2020-21 season. We are very grateful to the National Hockey League and its teams for their support and leadership in navigating through the challenges faced over the past two months.
"The AHL continues to place paramount importance on the health and safety of our players, officials, staff and fans and all of their families, and we all look forward to returning to our arenas in 2020-21.”
Following the announcement, Andrews told Sportsnet's "Hockey Central" that he expects the AHL to return in 2020-21, but he added, "It might be something dramatically different than what it looks like now."
The Amerks, who were purchased by Terry Pegula in June 2011, are one of 19 AHL teams owned by their NHL parents. However, the league's 12 other teams are locally owned and might need financial support from their NHL affiliate if fans cannot attend games in 2020-21.
If social distancing mandates allow games to resume in the fall, the AHL could opt to delay the start of the season until attendance is possible. Andrews told Sportsnet last week that the league will ask owners if they will agree to play games if only some buildings are open to fans. There is also the question of how many fans will be able to afford the cost of attending sporting events.
"When you’re talking about the AHL, when you’re talking about National Lacrosse, they’re ticket-driven," said Lee Berkes, president and CEO of LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media Inc. "Their major revenue streams are tickets and sponsorships. If you don’t have fans in the stands or arena, you lose that ticket revenue and, in turn, the sponsors are going to say, ‘Wait, nobody is seeing what I’m doing here.’
"That’s an issue and you add to the fact the sponsors themselves – some of them are in very difficult shape. There are categories that have been put on the sidelines, from airlines to hotels to restaurants. Those have significant impacts in terms of revenue for those teams and they can’t fall back on the TV revenues to help tide them over like the Sabres and the Bills can, like any NHL or NFL team can."
The Amerks are the latest group of Sabres prospects facing a long offseason. Dylan Cozens, whom Buffalo drafted with the seventh overall pick last June, lost an opportunity to compete for the Memorial Cup when the Canadian Hockey League canceled its season. The NCAA and junior leagues across the globe also canceled their postseason tournaments.
The NHL's decision to attempt to complete the 2019-20 season will prevent the Sabres from holding their annual development camp and Prospects Challenge. However, the NHL has reportedly discussed each team having expanded rosters if play resumes this summer.
Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill could opt to use additional roster spots on prospects from Rochester, including Mittelstadt, Lawrence Pilut, Will Borgen, Rasmus Asplund, Jacob Bryson and Jonas Johansson.
Although hockey's hiatus halts the on-ice development of prospects, the Sabres have maintained dialogue with players to help them continue to prepare for the 2020-21 season.
"Through increased communication," Sabres assistant general manager Randy Sexton said. "Our performance staff has been creating and distributing workout plans based on the inventory and facilities available to players. In some cases, they simply have their living room, their basement and a few things. Our guys have designed plans that match their needs and their resources available. It really is all over the map, but the good news is kids aren't sitting around playing Xbox all day when they should be doing whatever they should be doing."
The Amerks announced Monday that fans who held single-game or group tickets for the canceled games are eligible to use the credit toward next season or can receive a full refund at the point of purchase. Season-ticket holders received a detailed email with instructions. Any unused tickets can be used toward any October or November regular-season games in the 2020-21 season.
Additionally, game day employees at Rochester's Blue Cross Arena will now be paid by Pegula Sports and Entertainment for the seven canceled home games.
There could be some significant changes with the Amerks' roster this offseason. Defenseman Zach Redmond signed a contract to play in Germany and Rochester has four prominent pending unrestricted free agents: forward Scott Wilson, defenseman John Gilmour, goalie Andrew Hammond and defenseman Casey Nelson.
Finnish prospect Arttu Ruotsalainen is expected to play for the Sabres or Amerks next season. Buffalo also signed college free agent forwards Brandon Biro and Dawson DiPietro, and prospect winger Matej Pekar may be ready to make the jump from junior hockey. Defenseman Mattias Samuelsson, a second-round draft pick in 2018, also agreed to terms with the Sabres in April on an entry-level contract and will likely spend next season in Rochester.
Amerks coach Chris Taylor sent a text message to his players when the AHL made the decision to cancel the season, and he plans to hold exit interviews over the next week. The coaching staff will then begin preparations for next season. The biggest loss, according to Taylor, is the missed development opportunity for young players, including Mittelstadt, Borgen, Bryson and Brett Murray.
"It's always difficult to have your season end, especially abruptly the way that it did," said Taylor. "Obviously, the safety of everybody and the concerns right now outweigh the hockey season going on. I'm sure all the players are disappointed. ... We were making that push and going in the right direction for sure. With the young guys evolving and growing a bigger role on our team, you wanted to see where they would end up, how their development would transfer going into that push and possibly the playoffs. We didn't get to see that, which is the frustrating part about it."