BIRD’S-EYE VIEW: Playoffs? You Kidding Me?
Blog #39 – June 9, 2021
By: John Peterson
One year ago, still reeling from the cancellation of the 2019-20 season, 26 ECHL teams navigated murky waters toward an eventual decision whether or not to participate in the 2020-21 campaign.
The first team to opt for a voluntary suspension due to the pandemic was Atlanta. Next was Norfolk. Soon the entire North Division dropped out, including Adirondack, Brampton, Maine, Newfoundland, Reading and Worcester.
Weighing the November spike in COVID cases before the final deadline, Kalamazoo joined Cincinnati, Idaho and Toledo in joining the teams keeping the lights off.
Then there were 14.
13 teams decided to power through the pandemic and play a full season starting in mid-December. Fort Wayne received clearance to join the rest in February.
At the end of a normal season, the Kelly Cup Playoffs commence in early April. Usually by now, we’re preparing to crown a champion. This year is obviously different in a number of ways.
The NHL chose to play the entire season using four regional divisions who’d compete all the way through the first two rounds of the playoffs playing only the other teams within each division. When the Stanley Cup Playoffs reach the final four, the semifinalists are reseeded based on regular season records.
Way at the other end of the spectrum, the AHL cancelled its traditional Calder Cup Playoffs due to the pandemic. The league instead allowed each of its divisions the chance to determine a champion. All but one opted to scrap a postseason altogether and declare the regular season champion the division winner. The Pacific Division played a four-team tournament to determine a division champ.
The ECHL, amid countless postponements due to outbreaks, safety concerns or occasional and unfortunate ice issues, powered through the regular season and made it here.
From 26 potential teams to 14, just eight now remain for a chance to win the league’s coveted Kelly Cup.
With respect to all the hard work and planning put in by league officials, the Board of Governors, front office staffs, players and coaches, it feels a little like an asterisk season.
Being one of the 12 teams watching from afar, that might be easy for us to say. But the truth is, this will be a weird month of playoff hockey. Let’s see how we got here.
(Shout out to former Colts coach Jim Mora for the inspiration behind this blog title.)
Of the 14 teams competing in 2020-21, eight qualified for the Kelly Cup Playoffs. The other six had the opportunity to join the rest of the opt-out teams to get a head start on 2021-22 preparations.
The race for the Brabham Cup, the ECHL’s version of regular season champion, came down to two teams: Allen and Florida.
Leading the league with 45 wins and 94 points, the Americans claimed the top seed in the Western Conference. They, however, completed all 72 games. The Everblades finished 69 games, as three were cancelled due to reasons laid out above. Florida’s 42 wins and 92 points were good for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Because of winning percentage points, the Everblades (.667) edged the Americans (.653) for the Brabham Cup. That is the kind of season it’s been.
Allen faces Utah in a best-of-five first round series. The first two games are at Allen Event Center. Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary) would be held at Maverik Center in West Valley City, Utah. If the series goes the distance, the fourth-seeded Grizzlies would get home ice in the deciding game. That’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. The Americans, however, took care of business 3-1 on home ice last night in Game 1 and host the Grizzlies again tonight.
The other Western Conference series features the second-seeded Wichita Thunder against the Fort Wayne Komets. Due to some conflicts, the first two games are at the Wichita Ice Center, the Thunder’s practice facility. In addition to losing out on the possibility of home playoff games at the big, shiny INTRUST Bank Arena, Wichita would also have to travel to Fort Wayne for Games 3, 4 and 5 if necessary at Memorial Coliseum. The Komets stole Game 1 with a tiebreaking goal in the final minute last night.
To make matters weirder, the Komets joined the ECHL season 20 games after everyone else, scooped up some free agents from Cincinnati, Toledo and others, and played 41 of their 51 games against Indy and Wheeling (who both competed in the Eastern Conference). In fact, Fort Wayne only played six games against Western Conference competition, finishing with the third best winning percentage in the conference. Game 2 of that series is tonight.
The Everblades, backstopped by original K-Wings signee Jake Hildebrand, face the South Carolina Stingrays in the first round. Game 1 was played at the Stingrays practice facility, the Carolina Ice Center Monday night. South Carolina prevailed 3-2 in overtime to grab an early series lead. Game 2 will also be held in North Charleston tonight before the rest of the series shifts to Estero, Florida.
Finally, the Greenville Swamp Rabbits completed a 91-point season to finish second in the East and battle the Indy Fuel in the first round. Strangest of the best-of-five schedules, Game 1 will be played at Indiana Farmer’s Coliseum in Indianapolis. Games 2, 3 and 4 (if necessary) will be at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina. If the series goes the distance, Game 5 would be held back in Indy.
You might be shaking your head at how this all played out. Practice facilities, lower seeds hosting three games, percentage points, etc. But let me assure you, a lot of headaches likely went into the scheduling from a team and league standpoint. When you’re not the primary tenant in your building, sometimes you have to play second fiddle to concerts and other events, especially in the heat of summer.
I’m sure some of those playoff teams have gripes, but kudos to everyone for their efforts to pull it off.
NO ONE DEFENDING THE PRIZE
Nobody won the Kelly Cup in 2020. The season was cancelled four months prematurely, along with the playoffs. One of the contenders at that point appeared to be the Newfoundland Growlers, the leaders of the North Division and defending Kelly Cup Champions.
Most ECHL fans probably remember the Growlers’ triumph in their inaugural season, culminating with a six-game series win over the Toledo Walleye in the 2019 finals. The championship was the first-ever for the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The celebration was massive. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ affiliate dominated the competition throughout the regular season and playoffs and looked poised to defend their title in 2019-20. The ensuing shutdown spoiled any chance of that.
When it came time to decide whether to play, the two Canadian teams didn’t really have a choice. Canada closed the border with the United States as cases spiked south of the border, making travel impossible.
So while perhaps unjust, Newfoundland won’t get a chance to defend its title and there will be a new team taking home the hardware this summer. Of the eight teams left, it’s safe to say the Kelly Cup is anyone’s for the taking.
Only three of the eight franchises have ever won an ECHL title. Allen claimed back-to-back championships in 2015 and 2016, their first two ECHL seasons following the Central Hockey League merger.
Florida won it all in 2012 and most recently appeared in the finals in 2018, losing in seven games to the Colorado Eagles. South Carolina has three Kelly Cups, winning in 1997, 2001 and again in 2009. The Stingrays also fell just short two times since their last championship, losing in the finals to Allen in 2015 and Colorado in 2017.
The Greenville Swamp Rabbits and Indy Fuel are both making their second playoff appearances. The Fuel last qualified in 2018 and the Swamp Rabbits made the playoffs in 2017. Both failed to advance those years, and Indy is still searching for its first playoff win in franchise history, after the Swamp Rabbits shutout the Fuel 2-0 last night. Game 2 is Thursday in Greenville.
Before changing their name to the Swamp Rabbits, Greenville made the playoffs four straight years from 2011-14 while they were known as the Road Warriors. An earlier franchise in the city won a Kelly Cup in 2002 when the Greenville Grrrowl captured the title.
Other than Allen, none of the other three Western Conference teams have sniffed a Kelly Cup championship. Utah has qualified for the playoffs 13 out of 15 possible seasons, but only advanced past the second round once, when the Grizzlies were swept by the Las Vegas Wranglers in the 2008 conference finals.
Fort Wayne has won seven Turner Cups in the old IHL, one Colonial Cup in the UHL and one President’s Cup in 2012, their final season in the CHL before joining the ECHL the following year. They’ve made the Kelly Cup Playoffs in eight of nine possible seasons, but have only made it as far as the conference finals (2016 and 2018).
Wichita won two CHL titles in 1994 and 1995, but has only qualified for the postseason twice in six opportunities in the ECHL, losing in the first round in 2018. The Thunder, led by Coach of the Year Bruce Ramsay, just completed a 90-point regular season, by far their best campaign since joining the league.
One of those eight will celebrate a championship and cap off a strange season. Surely it’ll be doubted by some and asterisked by others, but that team and their fans will deservedly rejoice after making it through a difficult season unlike any other.
BACK TO NORMAL
Regardless of the Kelly Cup Playoffs results, I feel confident in saying this: everybody with ties to the ECHL, including players, coaches, staff, league officials and fans will be excited to collectively turn the page toward the 2021-22 season.
Almost immediately after the trophy presentation at the end of the finals, a new chapter begins. There won’t be time to waste. Next seasons starts in a few short months and the league has simultaneously taken the necessary steps to look ahead while seeing through the process of the current season.
11 teams have spent the last 15 months preparing for the next time they’d be able to open the doors to fans. These front offices have been strategizing ways to fill the seats, ways to entertain the fans with exciting theme nights and ways to celebrate their communities. Coaches have been researching systems, watching countless hours of video and strategizing their recruiting plans.
Now that the 2020-21 regular season is complete, six more teams have a head start on preparations for the upcoming ECHL campaign. Jacksonville, Kansas City, Orlando, Rapid City, Tulsa and Wheeling failed to qualify for the playoffs and likely have already moved on to 2021-22.
Unfortunately, as is the case with minor league sports from time to time, some teams are unable to make things work in their respective markets. The Brampton Beast are the most recent example of that. The Beast recently announced they’d cease operations indefinitely.
Although the loss of Brampton is a disappointment, the ECHL also gained two new markets. Iowa and Trois Rivieres are joining the league in 2021-22, bringing the total number of teams to 27. The following season, Savannah, Georgia will enter the discussion as the ECHL’s 28th franchise.
It’s hard to say if the upcoming season will feel fully back to normal, but the future certainly looks bright. For now, let’s all sit back, enjoy the playoffs, wish all the teams the best of luck, and look forward to a fresh start this fall.
Bird’s-Eye View is a Kalamazoo Wings blog, written by the team’s Director of Public Relations/Broadcaster John Peterson. The thoughts, opinions and behind-the-scenes stories are that of the writer alone and not a reflection of the organization as a whole. Fans are welcome to submit questions and ideas for future blog posts to email@example.com. Enjoy!