SPRINGFIELD, MA - The American Hockey League (AHL) announced, Thursday, that it has moved the anticipated start date for the 2020-21 regular season until December 4, due ongoing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.
The AHL regular season usually begins near the beginning of October and consists of a 76-game schedule.
The league's Board of Governors made the decision on Thursday during a conference call, voting to move the start date following the recommendation of the AHL's Return to Play Task Force.
The announcement was made through the league's new President and CEO, Scott Howson.
"We're all dealing with uncertain times," said Utica Comets President Rob Esche, a member of the league's Board of Governors. "Being patient at this time, and making sure the health and safety of the fans, the players, and the staff all come into play is the first thing we care about."
The 2019-20 season was put on pause on March 12 and subsequently canceled in May, ending the year without crowning a champion.
At the time of the pause, the Utica Comets were 34-22-3-2, and in a playoff spot at third place in the North Division with 73 points.
They had 15 regular season games remaining.
Further details regarding the 2020-21 AHL schedule are still to be determined, but setting a target date at least provides an opportunity for those details to be discussed.
"It's so important for us to be able to say there's a date, and there's a back-up date because it allows for planning," said Esche. "The schedule doesn't happen overnight. It's over a month of hard work to schedule all these teams, with travel, it's not as easy as just opening the doors and people are just there. It doesn't work like that."
Esche also said the league is focusing on a schedule that can limit travel, hotel stays, and potential flights (the AHL uses commercial flights, not charter flights for teams). He expects the schedule to look different because of this with more rivalry games.
In the case of the Comets specifically, that may not constitute too big of a change as most of their division rivals are located within New York State, requiring a single-day bus trip. Some teams in the Pacific and Central Divisions are much more spread out, geographically, from their opponents.
He said that while many around the league still hope to put together a schedule allowing for a full 76-game season, that may not be possible.
There is also still no word on whether or not fans will be allowed in the arenas.
There are 31 teams in the AHL, including the Comets, and the league said it is working with member clubs to monitor developments and local guidelines in each team's repective cities.
Out of the 31 teams, four are based in Canada (three of which play in the Comets' division), bringing potential border issues into play.
Previously, league officials had expressed doubts about whether the AHL could sustain a season in which no fans were allowed in attendance.
“The AHL is a gate-driven league as you know, [there's] not a lot of TV revenue for us. We have some TV, but it doesn’t generate a lot of revenue,” said retiring AHL President and CEO Dave Andrews back in April. “So for us to play for any extended period of time without people in the building would be very unlikely.”
At the time, Andrews had suggested that since the league has 12 independently-owned teams, it would be possible to have teams choose to not participate in the season if their business would be unsustainable with fanless games.
In response to that possibility, Esche told NEWSChannel 2 that the team would find a way "one way or another," to play next season.
The franchise is technically owned by the Vancouver Canucks organization, but the locally-based Mohawk Valley Garden group (of which Esche is also the President), operating independently, is responsible for the business and financial aspect of the team.
New York State guidelines currently prohibit fans from attending large-scale sporting events at venues around the state.
Esche sees fan attendace as essential once the season does begin and hopes the December start date allows more time to be able to welcome fans back in safely.
"The business structure is one thing," he said. "Yes, the AHL can't operate without a gate, but I question the ability to move forward virtually with sports, I don't see it. I think no matter what decisions we make, how we make decisions, I think the fans need to be the focal point. They breathe life into you, it's what sports is about."
The 2020-21 season will be the 85th in the history of the American Hockey League, and after the events of the past few months, it may very well be one of the most highly-anticipated seasons of all-time.
"I dream about it quite often," said Esche. "I know that we're going to have one big a-- party when that does happen."