Information is surfacing that on the heels of their extraordinary, record-setting and Calder Cup-winning season, the Norfolk Admirals might be a lame duck franchise.
And the Tampa Bay Lightning may have arranged it months ago.
While nothing has been announced by either Tampa Bay or Norfolk, the first public indication of a major change in the AHL occurred on March 1, when the Syracuse Crunch chose to not exercise their option to continue their affiliation with the Anaheim Ducks.
Then, on March 3, Syracuse Crunch owner Howard Dolgon announced that his organization had reached a deal with a new NHL franchise. “We’re done. Hockey in Syracuse is secure for a long time,” Dolgon proclaimed. “It’s a fair deal. We’re very comfortable, they are very comfortable. It’s just a question of working with the parties involved, and finding the appropriate time [to make the deal public].”
The Crunch have also announced that they will debut new jerseys with colors inline with their new NHL affiliate on their Oct 13 home opener. Exactly which colors can be expected next fall remains unclear – even all these months later.
Speculation is mounting that the mystery NHL franchise is none other than the Lightning.
The five-year deal between the Admirals and Lightning expires this summer, and the Tampa Bay Times has reported that the relationship between the two clubs in uncertain. “I know Syracuse is talking to them,” said Norfolk owner Ken Young. “We’re talking with the Lightning. We’re talking with other teams…I’d just as soon we keep it the way it is.”
Unfortunately for Young, the Lightning may not want to keep it the way it is.
Some, including the Times, suggest that as the most southerly franchise in the AHL’s Eastern Conference, high travel costs may be one of the reasons why the Lightning may have gone shopping for a new developmental partner. Admirals GM (and Lightning Assistant GM) Julien BriseBois has said that “our relationship with [Norfolk's] ownership, the arena, fan support have all been great. Our only issue is that Norfolk is so geographically removed from the rest of the league.”
Even if a deal was completed months ago, Tampa Bay hasn’t turned its back on the Admirals. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was in the tunnel leading to the Admirals’ dressing room after the final whistle at the Ricoh Coliseum last Saturday when the baby-Bolts hoisted their cup.
Gestures like that may seem like small comfort to Norfolk fans in the days ahead if their beloved players are yanked out of the Scope, but maintaining perspective is important – particularly if one isn’t familiar with the AHL. Unlike in the NHL, where Commissioner Gary Bettman loves to keep franchises firmly anchored, change happens all the time in the A.
Consider that for the 2011-12 season, five AHL teams changed their NHL affiliations. The Manitoba Moose completely shed their previous identity by changing affiliations (swapping the Vancouver Canucks for the Winnipeg Jets), becoming the
Tim Horton’s Icecaps , and moving 4800 kilometers east along the Trans Canada highway from Winnipeg to St. John’s Newfoundland to set up their new home.
The reactivation of the Edmonton Road Runners (who promptly became the Oklahoma City Barons) in 2010-11 triggered three affiliation swaps. Meanwhile, the Albany River Rats moved to Charlotte, becoming the Checkers, and the Lowell Devils fled for…wait for it…Albany. The Hartford Wolfpack switched monikers and threads – reborn as the Connecticut Whale – even while staying put.
And in 2009-10? Well, the Quad City Flames fled to Abbotsford, and Philadelphia Phantoms lost their rink to demolition and moved to Adirondack. The Texas Stars began operations (initially on a probationary basis) and the Iowa Chops were suspended for being “unable to remedy certain violations of the provisions of the league’s constitution and bylaws.” The violations were never explained.
The AHL is simply more fluid than the more stately NHL, and life for many franchises and their fans is tumultuous as result.
But if even if the Lightning are taking their top prospects to Syracuse, they can’t take the Calder Cup with them – at least for 2011-12, that belongs to Norfolk.