What Killed the AHL in Albany?

When the final chapter of AHL hockey in Albany is written, they’ll say it left in 2017. Truth be told, the passion for the sport was killed sometime between 2000 and 2006. As the New Jersey Devils relocate their AHL club from Albany to Binghamton in 2017-18, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Plenty of questions too.

In this space, we examine what went wrong and why the Albany Devils’ departure is deeper than attendance.

Lack of Corporate Support

From 1993 to 2010, the Albany River Rats were locally owned by Capital District Sports Inc. Al Lawrence owned the team from 1993 to 1998 and Walter Robb owned the club from 1998 to 2010. Both men were community and civic-minded and thought the greater Capital Region could stand to benefit from having a pro hockey team to be proud of. Robb even helped convince the Brooks Brothers to give Glens Falls another shot at AHL hockey, before the Lehigh Valley Phantoms jumped from Philadelphia to Adirondack.

Unfortunately, in 2010, the aging owner couldn’t find another local buyer or group and sold to the Carolina Hurricanes, who moved the club closer to Raleigh, with their AHL franchise in Charlotte. This left Albany without a franchise and at the will of the NHL owned Devils.

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It’s also part of why they’re leaving, as the local ownership in Binghamton will assume operating costs and absorb all potential losses. Given how Albany is 30th and Binghamton is 29th in attendance this season, local ownership makes a world of difference.

No one with entrepreneurial spirit and community pride decided to step up and now the AHL is stepping out.

Devils Losing Breeds Apathy

With many players helping the NHL club win Stanley Cup titles, the River Rats used to have a slogan, “we breed champions.” After qualifying for the Calder Cup playoffs from 1993-2000, the club missed the postseason an unprecedented six consecutive seasons from 2000 to 2006 and registered a losing record from 1999 to 2006.

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In the seven playoff seasons, the club averaged 4,831 fans per contest. During the ensuing six seasons without the playoffs, the team averaged 3,731 fans per game. No one wants to watch the same bad movie over and over again. Even after a more successful switch to the Hurricanes affiliation, the damaging losing stigma turned off a generation of fans.

When the Devils returned to Albany from Lowell, they didn’t help their cause, registering three consecutive seasons without making the playoffs.

If you’re a Devils affiliate, they will, in fact, kill your attendance. In the final four seasons of the Lowell Lock Monsters from 2002 to 2006, the club averaged 3,946 fans per game. When the Devils moved in, missing the playoffs the first three out of four seasons, they drew a paltry 2,423 per contest, from 2006 to 2010.

Before last season, a Devils AHL team hadn’t won a playoff series since 1998. Yikes!

Poor Marketing

When the Devils returned to Albany in 2010, they failed to connect with Capital Region fans and essentially ran the club like they had in Lowell. From the brand to lack of promotions, to the mascot, to ignoring Albany’s hockey heritage, they never quite got it right. Unless you were an ardent supporter, you probably wouldn’t have been much aware of what was happening with the team.

Their marketing geniuses from New Jersey didn’t have any local expertise and it showed, especially with 5:00 p.m. start times for Saturday home games.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree with the parent club ranking 26th in NHL attendance this season at Prudential Center.

Second Class Tenants

The biggest knock on Times Union Center is it’s too small to draw big events and probably too big for the AHL. Facilities were upgraded to NHL caliber upon the Devils’ return in 2010, however, such was not the case for the preceding franchise, which was not given as good of a lease agreement by the building despite being a locally run franchise.

During the 2006-07 season, the River Rats qualified for the playoffs for the first time in seven years and were forced to play “home games” up at the Glens Falls Civic Center, because in their infinite wisdom the Time Union Center management booked the circus during playoff time.

The building also gave preference on dates to concerts and Siena College basketball games, over the second best hockey league in North America.

After spending millions of taxpayer dollars on building renovations, they’re letting $11 million dollars of downtown economic impact skate out the door and leaving the building dark for 38 nights from October to April.

The Future of Hockey in Albany

New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh and New York Islanders left wing Josh Bailey (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

Unless the expansion Vegas team wants to give Albany a crack or the arena, city and county can coax the New York Rangers to move their AHL affiliate to Albany, it looks bleak. Albany is in the heart of Rangers country and could average around 6-7,000 if run properly. However, without local ownership and fewer dance partners, given the AHL’s westward migration, it’s tough to see a match at the moment.