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Regionalized play: Imagining a suitable return-to-play scenario for the AHL

The already regionalized league could have an easier time getting back underway next season than its NHL counterpart.

Providence Bruins v Laval Rocket Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

When the AHL cancelled the remainder of its 2019-20 season back in May, it was unclear how sports would resume, if at all.

But since then, several professional sports leagues in the United States have gotten back underway successfully, with the NHL set to resume this week.

While it’s easy to bask in the glow of sports returning to our TV sets, you can’t help but wonder how next season will look with an altered timeline and growing uncertainty about curbing the coronavirus.

For leagues like the American Hockey League, however, resuming play responsibly next season may not be as difficult as you think.

In order to set comparable standards for the AHL, where money definitely isn’t growing on trees, the league cannot model itself off NBA or NHL bubble-style tournaments, or even Major League Baseball’s realignment.

Instead, looking at another lower-league set-up, like the United Soccer League’s Championship division, can help serve as a foundation for how to get the AHL back up and running.

In the USL Championship, the largest pro sports league in the U.S. with 35 teams, teams are spread in markets from Hartford to Rio Grande Valley all the way to Tacoma. With teams spread over such a large geographic area, teams in the East, much like we see in the AHL, hardly ever face their Western counterparts.

The USL Championship has gone a step further in its restart, setting eight ultra-regionalized groups of competition in a shortened season. Each team plays 16 games, facing their other group members approximately four times, pending the amount of teams in that grouping.

In cases with five-team groups, there are three games against each opponent and one additional game against a team in another group still reasonably close enough. This limits travel while balancing competition across different regions of the country.

The AHL could deploy a similar tactic. In a normal year, the Providence Bruins would play a major chunk of its schedule against Atlantic Division opponents, while still matching up with other Eastern foes in the North Division on occasion.

For the sure-to-be shortened 2020-21 AHL season, here’s what I propose:

  • Each team plays the other seven teams in its division six times
  • Each team also plays an additional matchup against the eight teams from the other division in their respective conference.

This would allow for a fifty-game schedule with limited travel.

The exception to this would be for the Central Division, where the seven teams would each need to play divisional foes seven times along with one-off match-ups with teams from the Pacific.

To avoid so-called cross contamination, games would have to be played on back-to-back days against the same team. For example, Providence would host Springfield twice in a row instead of a traditional home-and-home series.

And for cross-divisional games, there could be travel partners. Providence could play Syracuse and Rochester on the road in the same weekend, along with a team like Springfield.

Meanwhile, other teams like Cleveland and Toronto could pair up to face Providence and Springfield on one weekend, swapping opponents each night.

Of course, as has been the case with every league, there’s some necessary finagling to be done as well as logistics to put together.

But on the surface, using the USL Championship model of ultra-regionalizing games could create a balanced schedule with safe, minimal travel involved.