WBS Penguins 20th Season: Andrews Guides AHL To Prosperity
It’s certainly a celebratory weekend for minor league hockey.
Yes, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins will kick off the 20th season in franchise history on Saturday night at Mohegan Sun Arena. However, a much more significant milestone will take place the night before in Loveland, Colorado.
There, at the Budweiser Events Center, American Hockey League President and CEO David Andrews will be on hand to welcome the Colorado Eagles as his organization’s 31st franchise. The team’s arrival is a watershed moment, as it means the AHL will be home to the primary affiliate for every team in the NHL.
It’s a stark contrast from when the Penguins began play in 1999: There were only 19 teams, and the league was nowhere near as influential to the sport and accessible as it is today.
Leading the growth has been Andrews, who is about to enter his 25th season at the league’s helm. He recently spoke to The Citizens’ Voice about some of the key moments that have helped shape the current AHL.
Q: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has been one of the league’s premier franchises since its inception, making 17 playoff appearances. What has the team’s success meant for the league as a whole?
A: It has represented a great deal, particularly in the early stages (of their existence). We needed some success stories like that to help us show the positive direction the league was going in. It was a crucial market, and other leagues were looking at it. All the credit goes to (former state Representative) Kevin Blaum and the civic leaders, and to the players, (Penguins President and CEO) Jeff Barrett and everyone else that has been a part of it. The rest is history.
Q: What are some of the key moments during your tenure that have helped the league become what it is today?
A: There has been a lot of changes and growth, as there should be over 25 years. There’s been a couple watershed years, and 2001 was certainly among the most important with the expansion (six teams transferred from the defunct International Hockey League, while the AHL added two expansion franchises). Until then, we were in a very destructive competitive environment. It was very important that we got some level of control to help the league grow. It really helped us establish our business model and strong relationship with the NHL. The next big step for us was the move to the West Coast. Our travel has become infinitely more difficult, but it’s been a fantastic development for the league and those markets.
Q: The league has always seemed to adapt and experiment, whether it be with rule changes or even something like tweaking the All-Star event. How much of an emphasis has that been for you, and how much better has it made the competiton?
A: Some of the changes were obviously NHL tests, but many elements that have become part of hockey everywhere were pioneered in our league. I don’t think the game’s ever been in a better place. It’s much faster, much more skilled and more entertaining in my opinion. That’s a credit to the NHL for our leadership. You know, I used to have the NHL package on the dish, and trying to find a game that was really exciting was very difficult at times. Now, they’re all pretty darn good.
Q: The league introduced its new streaming service, AHL TV, a couple weeks ago. How much will that help keep your established fans happy and allow you to potentially attract new ones?
A: Our streaming property, which was AHL Live, has been a source of irritation for many fans. They haven’t liked the price points or the product itself. Now, in terms of quality, a lot depended on which market the game was coming out of. But, we had a lot of dissatisfied customers. We wanted to look at 1) the business model and 2) the technology we were using. The response has been really positive. We know we’ve got better technology. We obviously have to roll it out, but I think all those things will be better.
Q: Digital and social media have become so prevalent since the Penguins joined the league. How much have they influenced the way the league is viewed?
A: If you look at everything that has happened, I think that might be the biggest single change – the digital growth. It allows us to engage with fans in a way we never have before. It’s also changed the way with how our businesses are run. Monetarily, it’s the way tickets are sold now. But, it’s also a challenge. People are so connected to their phones, iPads and laptops. Getting people out of their living rooms is tougher. Ultimately, what it does is give us better tools to communicate with fans and run our business.
Q: How excited are you to begin the upcoming season and see where the league goes moving forward?
A: I’m excited for the season to start. I’m usually excited for it to end, too, but it’s always fun to get to that final game and we give out the Cup and then can go have a beer and tell one another, “Great job!” I’m excited about our All-Star event in Springfield; we’re partnering with a new MGM casino to house everything, so that will be fun. I’m excited that we’re already a year ahead with our 2020 All-Star Classic in Ontario, California. And, I expect depending on what happens with the NHL’s expansion to Seattle, we can add another team over the next few years. There’s definitely a lot to look forward to.
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