Ryan Crelin stepped into the role of ECHL Commissioner last season, the fourth person to hold the title in the league’s 31-year history. He has inherited a league at a time of great change in minor-league hockey, with a vision to continue to grow the league at a sustainable rate to become a pillar in the development path of future NHL players.
He joined Eyes On The Prize for an interview where he talked about the direction of the league, branding, expansion and, more specifically, the rumours surrounding Trois-Rivières and their bid for a hockey team to play in the new Colisée for the 2020-21 season.
“I think I inherited [the league] in a pretty good state,” said Crelin. “The minor-league landscape has been ever-changing and I don’t think it’s done changing just yet. It’s a tough business, and until there is more stability, that’s how we are going to grow. It’s been a focus of mine to get our business operations in a good spot, but also looking at the fact that we are not the only minor pro league out there.
“We are here at 26 teams, and we are obviously keeping our eyes on the NHL and AHL as they grow to 32 teams. Down the road, I want to grow the league to that utopia where we serve as the premier AA affiliate league for the NHL and AHL, but we are not there yet.
“For us to strategically rush to 32 doesn’t make a whole lot of sense; there are a lot of factors that come to play. But the long-term plan is to work toward a model that mirrors the baseball model, and to make sure on the business front that the markets that we are in are strategic markets that can successfully house a minor-league hockey team.”
Is the three-tier vision in line with every NHL team?
“I think it does vary from team to team, but the sense that I am getting is that it is starting to change a bit. We had a lot of momentum with Toronto and the Growlers. They had 15 or 16 NHL and AHL contracts in the ECHL this year, which was quite a bit, But there were 10 other teams who had double digit NHL/AHL contracts in the ECHL. So the momentum is going in that direction, focusing on development, starting a player’s career earlier in the organization to help them develop up to the NHL.
“Not everyone is going to make it, but if you can nurture three to four players in the ECHL level who eventually make the NHL team, you’ve been able to grow their culture and cultivate them the way you want them, and in the NHL salary-cap world, you save a few bucks as you develop your roster.”
Toronto having 15 players: did it create a competitive imbalance?
“Maybe a little. That’s something that we are addressing. We changed our player playoff eligibility rules to help encourage further growth from NHL/AHL teams in the ECHL. I would tell you this was the first year that someone took such a big step. We have a lot of good affiliations, but this was the highest level we have ever seen and that spurred the conversation for all our teams and affiliates.”
What do you look for in an expansion market?
“A lot of factors, certainly market size. You certainly can’t go in the middle of nowhere and hope that there is going to be enough hockey fans there. It has to fit in our geographic footprint and have appropriate geographic travel. You can argue that Newfoundland is not in our footprint, but with the connection out of Toronto, it works. Then you need to find an appropriate venue, which in today’s sports world means capacity, but also suites and party areas, modern amenities which help grow the business, and the key to any organization will be the ownership and management, which is one of the key pieces for building a stable franchise.”
Is there an appetite for expanding further into Canada?
“From a league perspective there certainly is. Over our history we have had three teams in Canada, now two on the Eastern side, and with teams in the Northeast US [Portland, Worcester], geographically it’s not that far. For our Canadian members, they would love to see it as it would create a stepping stone as you bounce around northeastern Canada, so I think there are a lot of positives.”
There has been some smoke surrounding a team in Trois-Rivières. Any truth to it?
“We are certainly aware of the new arena in Trois-Rivières and we have had talks with the group headed by Marc-André Bergeron. I even flew to Montreal and spent some time with those guys, just to make sure they are aware of our parameters and how we operate. So I know they are doing their due diligence and homework, they’ve got a lot of things to figure out, including getting ready to launch a new building, so they have their plates full. It’s certainly on our radar.”
So is there any potential for an expansion ECHL franchise there for the 20-21 season?
“Timeline-wise it’s certainly still doable, although as the months pass it obviously gets more strenuous on the ownership and management group to go in there. But they do still have a few months left to turn that around. The expansion process from our standpoint is a few months, but the key for the ownership group is not just the expansion process, but their team management process in terms of getting sponsors and season ticket holders, launching a brand, jerseys, all the things associated with launching a team. The shorter that timeline is, the more difficult it becomes. Once you get to late fall, you start putting yourself up against the clock.”
Any ownership or investors at this point for a team in Trois-Rivières?
“Not at this time, but we will hopefully be able to find a group to go in there.”
Would you like to see a team in Trois-Rivières?
“I would just from a size and demographic perspective, and from the renderings of the building is has all the pieces needed for a successful franchise. If Montreal was interested in getting involved, you’d have Montreal, Laval, and Trois-Rivières in a not very big triangle, so the proximity makes a lot of sense, so I think there are a lot of good pieces, but the key will be the right local ownership who knows the market to make it stable for the long term.”
Have you had any conversations directly with the Montreal Canadiens?
In 2003 the East Coast Hockey League wanted to remove any geographical bias so they contracted their name officially down to the orphaned initialism ‘ECHL’ and a year later expanded out to the west coast. Yet the “East Coast” term remains in everyday colloquial speak, including in the media and even in hockey operations. In francophone media it is frequently referred colloquially as “La East Coast”. Even the NHL CBA, written in 2012, nine years after the league’s rebrand, refers to the “East Coast Hockey League.”
The ECHL has been trying to trademark the name “Premier Hockey League” for a while now, but failing in their bid in filings with the USPTO on several occasions. Currently the ECHL uses “Premier AA Hockey League” as the byline on certain media releases and merchandise, but for better or worse they remain known as the ECHL for now.
There is a certain amount of brand confusion in your name. Are you looking to maybe re-brand the league name?
“That’s not the case right now, unless some other opportunity that made a lot of sense came around, then maybe we would go in that direction, like tying it to a sponsor or partner. But other than that we believe in the ECHL as a brand, and as who we are. In the US you’ve got a conference known as the ‘Big Ten,’ which actually has fourteen teams, and the reason is that the Big Ten carries weight and has brand equity and history, and we feel similar.
“We’ve been trying to get the ECHL moniker into people’s vernacular for a long time, but ‘East Coast’ still sticks around, but to say we will just scrap it and go in a different direction would not be correct. We do struggle with it, and we frequently have the conversation. But there are 31 years of brand equity there, and for us to just scrap it without a greater purpose doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
“Maybe you can put ‘La ECHL’ somewhere in the article to help spread the message,” joked Crelin to bring the interview to a close.