The ECHL announced a dramatic realignment on Monday but, at least for the upcoming hockey regular season, the changes will only be visible in the standings.
The league, which includes 27 teams from all regions of the country, switched from six divisions to four, each of which will have at least seven teams.
The realignment, approved by the league and its owners last month, was implemented for more geographically friendly playoff series but will not affect 2016-17 regular-season schedule.
“It became evident over the past year that we needed to do something that would benefit most of the teams,” ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna said. “…There’s no perfect way. Given the national geography, there are probably three or four or five teams that are somewhat disadvantaged by this. But the vast majority will benefit from this.”
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The Thunder stayed in the Central division, along with Tulsa. They’re joined by Kalamazoo, Quad City (Moline, Ill.), Toledo and Indy. Rivals Missouri and Allen moved to the Mountain division, where they will join western teams such as Colorado, Idaho and Alaska.
With travel costs in mind, teams will continue to play regular-season games against their most proximate opponents regardless of division. Wichita, for example, plays the majority of this season’s games against Allen, Missouri and Tulsa. McKenna said that could change after this season.
“Certainly if there are teams in your division, you’ll want to play them in the future,” McKenna said. “We couldn’t make the schedule changes this year, but I think you’ll see (more divisional games) in the future. Teams will want to play more games in their division because that’s who they’re fighting for a playoff spot from.”
With the three-division format for each conference last season, McKenna said any playoff team could have played a first-round series against an opponent more than 1,000 miles away. The league managed to avoid such a scenario, but the possibility of it happening this season prompted the change.
Now, first- and second-round series will only be between teams from the same division. That’s not ideal for teams from the mainland potentially traveling to Alaska, but McKenna said teams with shorter postseason trips will use travel money saved to subsidize other franchises who rack up mileage.
“Kind of the luck of the draw — it ended up that Fort Wayne played Cincinnati and Allen played Missouri,” McKenna said. “We had several of those (first-round) situations.…We lucked out. I think people looked at that as the luck of draw. It’s not going to happen every year, so we need to do something that makes more sense in the future.”