ECHL STOCKTON ANNOUNCED EDMONTON, SAN JOSE AFFILIATIONS ON MONDAY
STOCKTON EARNED 4 STRAIGHT ECHL ATTENDANCE TITLES 1ST 4 SEASONS
This summer has seen a number of major changes for the ECHL’s Stockton Thunder. The Thunder announced a new co-affiliation agreement with the San Jose Sharks on Monday, along with a 1-year renewal of their 4-year affiliation with the Edmonton Oilers. In April the ECHL’s board of govenors approved the sale of the team from Michael Reinsdorf’s ownership group to one lead by Alberta-born oil executive Brad Rowbotham. The arrangment may give Stockton, a West Conference Finalist in the Kelly Cup Playoffs last season, a leg up on the rest of the ECHL. The arrangement also officially allows for the cross pollination of Stockton Thunder and San Jose Sharks fans in Northern California, something that was already commonplace.
Edmonton has exceeded all expectations as an NHL affiliate. Stockton has seen 7 Oilers prospects advance to play in the NHL: 6-foot-6 goaltender Devan Dubnyk, Liam Reddox, 2005 Islanders first round draft pick Ryan O’Marra, defenseman Bryan Young (who suited up for Oilers against the Sharks at the Tank), Tim Sesito, current Anaheim Ducks right wing Troy Bodie and Colin McDonald. The Oilers actively work with Stockton on player development, and periodically send coaches to visit the team during the season.
San Jose has quietly developed into one of the premiere top to bottom organizations in the NHL. San Jose Sharks EVP/GM Doug Wilson is straightforward and thorough, and that carries down to his work at the AHL, ECHL and development levels. During Monday’s press conference, Wilson noted that the Sharks have been working on this affiliation for more than a year. “On all fronts this makes a lot of sense,” Wilson said via phone while traveling with his son to Sweden. “We tried to put it in place last year.” The Sharks were the most active team with regards to AHL callups last year, most active by a wide margin. In January the Sharks created an informal working relationship with Stockton that allowed rookie defenseman Jason Demers to practice 80 miles away in Stockton, instead of flying over 2600 miles back to the NorthEast on the “Worcester Shuttle”.
San Jose Sharks assistant GM/VP Wayne Thomas said the decision to work with Stockton came down to three factors, a stable professional organization, a place where hockey is important in the community, and the trust they have in a coaching staff. Stockton is a city that has its share of rough edges, but the Stockton Arena and Thunder hockey team, along with the adjoining single A ballpark and new hotel, are the centerpieces for downtown revitalization efforts. In Northern California, you can count the number of teams with hockey as one of the centerpieces of revitalization efforts on two fingers, San Jose and Stockton. The central valley is more of a rural atmosphere, but very sports oriented. Fans have supported the Thunder in droves, helping Stockton earn 4 straight ECHL attendance titles in their first 4 seasons. This year Stockton finished third in regular season attendance (behind LA’s southern California affiliate in Ontario), and second in playoff attendance.
As to the coaching staff in Stockton, represented at the press conference by head coach Matt Thomas and assistant coach Matt O’Dette, the Sharks have more than enough confidence that any player assigned to Stockton will be treated properly. The Sharks worked with Thomas when he was the head coach off the San Jose affiliated Fresno Falcons, and he brings with him consistent playoff credentials. The Thunder head coach said that the dual affiliation will probably lead to a younger team with more NHL contracted players, but he also noted that there will be fewer announcments made this summer. A number of decisions may be made after the 5-team NHL rookie tournament held in British Columbia, at which the Sharks and Oilers will both participate. Thomas also said that many decisions will not be made until after the AHL rosters are set.
From the San Jose Sharks perspective, history would suggest that an ECHL affiliation may result in one NHL contracted player being assigned. Given the importance of developing high caliber starting goaltending, NHL teams have zero’d in on the ECHL to prepare netminders for the professional game. The Sharks have seen a number of moves from Doug Wilson to advance his team, from draft day deals to stock the development shelves, to offer sheets, to dipping into a pool of collegiate and European free agents. The Sharks affiliation with Stockton may open up a new front in the development of new players. Wilson noted that with 8 new draft picks and 4 recently signed collegiate free agents, more young prospects may be assigned to Stockton.
“I think the beauty of this relationship is that we are flush with young players,” Sharks EVP/GM Doug Wilson said. “We had the youngest team in Worcester last year.” There may be one NHL contracted goaltender from Edmonton and San Jose assigned to Stockton according to head coach Matt Thomas, but that may only be the start. “We will get players for different reasons, high skill players looking for more minutes.” Add to that player development, injury rehabilitations, possibly salary cap maneuvers among other reasons.
Six straight postseason appearances, and back-to-back Western Conference regular season championships have dropped the Sharks down the NHL entry draft ladder. As a result, the Sharks are forced to select players a little farther out in the development process. Assigning a prospect to Stockton makes sense. It is easier to monitor their development, and the more time San Jose Sharks strength and conditioning coach Mike Potenza has to get his hands on a player, the more prepared they are going to be for the rigors of the pro game. Two examples of at the NHL level of success built in part on physical conditioning, Joe Pavelski and Evgeni Nabokov. If players can start at a level closer to where they need to be, they will be more successful. “It doesn’t matter where you start, it is where you finish,” Doug Wilson said.
For his part, new owner Brad Rowbotham instantly ingratiated himself with Stockton Thunder fans during a July Q-and-A when he answered a question about the tenure of the team in Stockton. “I want the team to stay here for decades,” he said. With a strong fan base and a solid coaching staff, what kind of team identity does Rowbotham want his team to have on the ice, and in the community? “We want the Thunder to be recognized as a first class organization that represents the people of Stockton and San Joaquin County in a manner they can be proud of,” Rowbotham told Sharkspage. “On the ice we continue to show we are hard working team that goes all out every night.”
Co-affiliation agreements with two NHL teams prepared to develop players at the AHL and ECHL levels also could signal increased exposure for the ‘AA’ hockey league. “The two affiliation agreements means we will be able to provide more of the best young, talented, hard working, professional players to the fans. It is another step forward in our efforts to win the Kelly Cup.” For the NHL, having a number one draft pick carries a cache and a marketing value that helps drive interest in a team. For the ECHL, that kind of cache and weight comes from having a NHL prospect. Stockton Thunder head coach Matt Thomas noted that, while crediting the work of his veterans, sometimes an NHL contracted prospect has a little more of a hunger and drive to advance up the food chain. “A little more of the carrot in front of him,” Thomas said. Stockton Thunder owner Brad Rowbotham sees that link in the development process as well. “Stockton is a great city and organization for professional players to focus on developing their hockey skills, which will help achieve the players’ goals of reaching the Sharks and Oilers organizations,” he said.
Monday’s press conference finished with a question asking about a potential NHL exhibition game between San Jose and Edmonton that could be held at Stockton Arena. Sharks assistant GM/VP Wayne Thomas said he would not have a problem with such an exhibition “it would be exciting”, and noted that due to adjustments to a previous NHL schedule there was a team that owed them a game in the preseason. This year the Sharks will start the 2010-11 regular season with a pair of games against the Ken Hitchcock-less Columbus Blue Jackets in Stockholm, Sweden. There could also be a preseason scrimmage between the Sharks and the Thunder, two teams less than 80 miles apart. In the past, the Sharks have even had a double-header between rookie teams preceeding a preseason game, as well as hosting the Oilers then-AHL affiliate Edmonton Roadrunners against San Jose’s then-affiliate Cleveland Barons at HP Pavilion during the NHL lockout. None of these suggestions are anywhere near being formalized, but there are a number of interesting twists the co-affiliation arrangement can take, and the cost of a bus ride to San Jose is far less prohibitive.
[Update2] Oilers, Sharks commit to developing a winner – Stockton Record.