Article co-written by Patricia Teter and Eric Rodgers, and cross-posted on ArtfulPuck and Tend the Farm.
Every season fans in the Minor Leagues complain about call-ups from their teams and this is our advice to you: enjoy those call-ups and cheer on your players at a higher level. Someday you might just be able to say “I knew that guy when he played for my local ECHL club, and now’s he’s in the NHL!”
Call-ups are a part of life in the Minors — you can’t avoid it and it is best if you just accept how the entire NHL hockey development system works. It is designed to ultimately help the top-tier of professional hockey, the National Hockey League. The NHL calls-up a player from the AHL, the AHL is then short-handed and calls-up a player from the ECHL. This same scenario also happens if a player is injured in the AHL — the team needs an extra player to fill that spot. It is no different from when an ECHL team signs an extra player to fill in a missing spot on their roster – you are calling up that player from the SPHL perhaps.
We’ve watched a lot of minor league hockey at the AHL, ECHL and even CHL level, and we have covered a great many transactions of players moving up and down throughout the system over the years. We have also listened to the impatience and irritation of the minor league fans as their best players are called-up at crucial points in their season. Trust us, we’ve felt the same things every season! Understandably fans are frustrated — but on the flip-side, the players are thrilled for an opportunity to play at a higher level. THIS is why they are playing hockey, make no mistake about it! And don’t fool yourselves into believing otherwise! They dream of playing in the big show.
Last season we calculated that the AHL’s OKC Barons had 153 separate transactions during the 2013-14 season (this figure does not include the initial signings and training camp PTOs). The 153 moves included players moving up and down, to and from the team’s NHL parent club the Edmonton Oilers, and players moving up and down from their minor league club, the Bakersfield Condors and other associated clubs such as the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads, and the CHL’s Quad City Mallards, Allen Americans, and Wichita Thunder. Most of the 153 transactions were between the NHL and AHL club, however when the AHL team’s roster was short in terms of game day numbers, the team would call-up a player from the minors.
And it is not always just players who are called-up! Don’t be surprised if you see your Coach called-up at some point as well. OKC Barons coach Todd Nelson was hired at “interim” Head Coach for the Edmonton Oilers in mid-December 2014 to replace the NHL’s clubs empty coaching spot after Dallas Eakins was fired. The OKC Barons team and their fans were extraordinarily excited to finally see their “Nelly” receive a much deserved promotion as an NHL Head Coach. Barons goaltender Richard Bachman said, “I’m sort of surprised he’s not already in the NHL. He’s a players’ coach. He listens to players and is very patient, sticks with his systems play even when things aren’t going well.”
Your minor league coaches understand the system and they realize that their best players will be called-up. They even recognize that players will move up to another league full-time, as in the case of Wichita’s Theo Peckham. Wichita Thunder’s coach Kevin McClelland explained at the time of his signing, “Peckham joined our hockey club, and I think he’s a big addition. Now, how long he’ll be here who knows? He’s got the ability to go on and play at a higher level, that’s for sure, and hopefully he’ll get that opportunity.”
This is how the system works and how it was intentionally designed. It benefits the NHL clubs, the minor clubs, and it always benefits the players involved. It gives players a chance to be seen and play for another club, receive advice and feedback from other team’s coaching staff and also it is a sign of recognition that they warranted a call-up to a higher league. This is what every hockey player dreams about — a call-up to the big leagues and an opportunity to move up in the system.
Over the years we’ve seen a lot of questions from minor league fans (and have replied to many!) but we thought it might help to explain how the development system works and what benefits are part of the system. Recently Blake Sebring of The News-Sentinel wrote an opinion piece on “ECHL needs better system to deal with AHL call-ups: Too often good ECHL teams are getting hurt,” and he has some very good points, but he disregards the overall minor hockey league development system.
Q: What exactly is a development league, and why do they exist?
A: This can be defined multiple ways. When most people see the name “development league” they could assume that every player is under a certain age. While this is true a lot of times, another key part to developing young players is teaching them how to act and how to handle controversy. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by having some vets on the roster. People may see them as taking ice time from younger prospects, but they are an integral part to the process. But at the same time as those vets are developing their skills to continue their dream, they also add that experience and skill for the younger guy to play against.
Q: What is a “call-up”?
A: A call-up is a player who is requested at a higher league team, due to injury, suspension, or even the normal call-up of their affiliated teams players who have not yet signed an AHL contract. Teams are signing specific players – a Center, Defenseman, Goalie to replace that specific position – this is not a one-size fits all type of situation. An AHL team might have some players sitting in the stands, but it is rather crazy to play a left winter in a goaltender position!
Q: What is the difference between an “affiliated” and “unaffiliated” team?
A: About what it sounds like. An affiliated team is one in which the team has an agreement with a team of a higher league to provide each other with players throughout the season. Some are mutually exclusive, but most of the time they’re not.
Call-ups for “affiliated” teams are specified in the ECHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA):
“Recall to an NHL/AHL Team Having an Affiliation with the Member [i.e. Team].
(1) If a Member has an affiliation agreement with an NHL/AHL team, a Player
may be recalled on receipt by the Member of an executed try-out agreement.
The Player shall be allowed to report to that team.
(2) If a Player is signed to an NHL contract or a one-way AHL contract, the
Player may report to the NHL/AHL team upon notification to the Member of
his recall prior to departure.”
Statements by ECHL Stockton Thunder President and New York Islanders GM on their affiliation, July 31st, 2013:
“The Thunder is committed to helping our players reach their goals through NHL development, and our new affiliation with the Islanders will help us achieve this objective for them in a much bigger way. And, our fans can look forward to watching talented Islanders prospects, who will play important roles in our commitment to excellence, both on the ice and in our community, ” Thunder President Brian Sandy said in a statement.
“The culture of success in Stockton will benefit our prospects and develop them into better hockey players as they work their way from the ECHL, to the AHL and eventually playing for the New York Islanders,” said Islanders’ GM Garth Snow.
List of Affiliated teams – FYI: NHL team affiliations with AHL and ECHL Teams.
Q: Are there any benefits to my minor league team from this development system?
A: Yes. A higher league team can “assign” players to your team, and an ECHL club can benefit by only paying a minimum of the player’s salary. The rest of the salary is paid by the higher club, depending upon their contracts. This places a potentially higher caliber player on their roster and they pay minimum cost. This is very useful to ECHL clubs since the league has a weekly salary cap set for team rosters.
From the ECHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA):
“NHL/AHL Affiliate Payments
Reimbursement for the services of an NHL/AHL contracted Player owned or assigned to a Member [i.e. Team] shall be calculated weekly as follows: 2014-15 — $525″
ECHL clubs are fully aware that those assigned players will most certainly receive call-ups throughout the season. The NHL club (or even AHL club) assigning the player wants their players to be playing consistently and developing properly. An example of this situation is the Edmonton Oilers assignment of their prospect goaltender Tyler Bunz with the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder. The Oilers are not “affiliated” with the Wichita Thunder, however the Thunder are nearby the Oilers’ AHL Club the OKC Barons, and Bunz is essentially placed nearby to be the Barons Emergency Backup Goalie when necessary.
Q: What are ECHL waivers? And how is this system different from the AHL?
A: In the ECHL a team can place a player on “waivers” at any time – that means that even though a player and a team have signed a season-long contract between two parties, the team can release that player at any time. There are no guarantees. That is why you can potentially see far more individual players come in and out of an ECHL club than an AHL club in general.
Waivers are something that you don’t see a lot of in the AHL, because most ECHL players are signed to Professional Try-Out contracts when they are called up. PTOs generally are smaller salary contracts for the AHL team to sign a called-up player with, and allows them to only pay the player while they are with the team. If the AHL team likes the player enough to where they want to keep the rights of the player and not allow another AHL team to call them up, that is when you see the player signed to an AHL Player Contract.
Q: What are the differences in AHL One-Way Contracts and Two-Way Contracts?
A: One-Way and Two-Way Contracts work the same way with AHL deals as they do with NHL contracts. One-Way contracts mean that a player earns the same amount of money regardless of if they are with their AHL team, or playing with an ECHL team. A Two-Way contract means that they earn a higher amount of money while they are on their AHL team and earn a lower amount with the ECHL team.
Q: Can an AHL team who is unaffiliated with an ECHL team call-up a player?
A: Yes. The system is designed so that any higher minor league team can call-up a player who is not affiliated.
Q: What benefit is a call-up from an unaffiliated team? What does my team get in return?
A: According to the ECHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement the team receives $500 compensation for each player called-up to an unaffiliated team:
“Recall to an NHL/AHL Team That Does Not Have an Affiliation with the Member [i.e. Team]. If the Member or the Player receives a try-out offer from an NHL/AHL team with no affiliation with the Member, the Player agrees he shall not accept the try-out offer until the Member has received a Five Hundred Dollar ($500) development fee from the non-affiliated AHL/NHL team for each call-up.”
Your team does not pay the salary for that player while they are called-up.
Your players benefit and often return with better skills and habits than before. As ECHL and CHL players were called-up to OKC the AHL coaching staff gives these players special attention. Higher league teams have more coaching staff, and even NHL coaching staff on site at times and this group gives time and guidance to any player coming into the team.
Q: If an unaffiliated AHL team calls-up a player, can they sit that player for weeks in the stands?
A: They could, but they would also be wasting their money if there is no good reason to keep the player. An AHL team generally signs lower league called-up players to a PTO (Professional Tryout Contract) at a higher rate and the player is paid a daily pro-rated salary. This contract is a short-term contract, lasting no more than 25 games. Teams do not like wasting money and they would far prefer to make money.
Many times called-up minor league players do play with the higher league, but sometimes they are just there for security — a spare scratch in the event they are needed on a long stretch of 3 back-to-back games. Perhaps one of their players is injured and they are uncertain if they can recover in time for a game. Normally a called-up player is returned fairly quickly.
Q: Is there any benefit to a player who is called-up? Even if they don’t play?
A: A call-up, even if they do not play in a game, gives players a chance to be seen and play for another club, receive advice and feedback from another team’s coaching staff, and it is also a sign of recognition that they warranted a call-up to a higher league.
In addition to that, a player is paid at a higher rate on a PTO, even if they don’t play.
Q: Are fans benefiting from these call-ups, affiliated or otherwise?
A: Absolutely. ECHL fans get the opportunity to see their favorite players receive a chance to further their career in a higher league. Most call-ups are made because the player called was one of the best players on the team. It’s a sense of pride that a fan can have that their favorite player was good enough to receive that look at a higher level.
Q: How do ECHL teams protect their “product on the ice” for their fans?
A: Hire excellent staff and coaches at the hockey operations level who will be able to not only create and develop a good hockey team every season, but who will also be able to move with the ebb and flow of the minor league system. Coaches that have the ability to make the changes needed and recognizing players’ skills are ones that see the most success. A called-up player isn’t just a compliment to the player, but also the coach and team itself.
And speaking of the team itself, you also need to have a front office staff that recognizes the importance of when a player is called up, and being sure to make a big deal of when something like that happens. All the time you see the ECHL promoting how many players have appeared in an ECHL game and have since played in the NHL. 553 players have done so over the course of the ECHL’s existence, 13 of which have made their NHL debut so far this 2014-15 season. All of those numbers are easily accessible on the ECHL website because it’s something they take great pride in, as they rightfully should.
| Please let us know if you have more questions about this topic. We are happy to share our thoughts on the process.