The partnership the Alaska Aces unveiled Wednesday, when they announced their affiliation with the NHL's Calgary Flames and American Hockey League's Abbotsford Heat, should bolster on several fronts a franchise that already ranks as a perennial power in the ECHL.
Under the one-year deal, the Aces this upcoming season likely will receive multiple players under contract to either Calgary or Abbotsford. Those additions will almost certainly strengthen Alaska's roster, and they will definitely afford the Aces salary-cap relief.
An NHL- or AHL-contracted player who plays in the ECHL only counts $525 per week against the league's weekly salary cap, which is $12,400 for the first month of the season and $12,000 per week after that. The discounted cap hit -- a maximum 20-player active roster and a weekly cap of $12,000 works out to an average of $600 per player -- will furnish Aces coach Rob Murray some weekly wiggle room.
The agreement also means the Aces will send at least four players under ECHL contract to Abbotsford's training camp next month in British Columbia -- Abbotsford is located about an hour's drive from Vancouver. That will give the selected players, yet to be revealed, a chance to compete at a higher level and make an impression on Abbotsford's coaching staff.
Alaska's affiliation with Abbotsford is a geographic fit -- Abbotsbord is the closest to Anchorage of the AHL's 30 franchises.
"These kinds of days are great days for us,'' Aces managing member Terry Parks said at an afternoon press conference at the team's offices.
The Aces' new affiliation marks their first since a five-year association, ending in 2011, with the NHL's St. Louis Blues and the Blues' then-AHL affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen. Alaska has been an independent team the last two seasons and still managed in both campaigns to win the Brabham Cup as ECHL regular-season champions, which gives the Aces an unprecedented three straight Brabhams.
Murray, a former NHLer (107 games) and AHLer (1,018 games), said the affiliation enhances the Aces' prestige.
"There's value there,'' Murray said. "It's probably not tangible value, but you know it's there. We're now part of a system -- we're the AA team of the Calgary Flames.''
Michael Holditch, Calgary's senior vice president and assistant general manager, who attended Wednesday's announcement, said striking a deal with the Aces made geographic sense. Still, he said, his organization was most convinced by the Aces' professionalism and reputation.
"It was more about the fit and the people, and we knew we can trust this group,'' Holditch said.
The Aces enjoyed unofficial ties to Abbotsford in previous seasons. Former Aces Tyler Ruegsegger and Russ Sinkewich have been loaned to the Heat, and Ruegsegger spent all last season with them. Also, Aces wingers Garry Nunn and Jordan Kremyr, and defenseman Kane Lafranchise, all attended Abbotsford's training camp last year.
Hard-core hockey fans will note an Alaska connection to the Flames -- former UAA winger Curtis Glencross led the Flames in goals in last season's lockout-shortened campaign, and he scored 53 goals for them in the previous two full seasons.
Parks said the Aces in the past two seasons have explored opportunities to become affiliated again, but did not find a suitable partner. Murray said he sought an affiliation but usually came to the same geographic impasse: "It always came back to, 'It's too far,' '' Murray said.
Abbotsford, however, is just one time zone and two flights (Anchorage to Seattle to Vancouver) away. That means a player recalled or loaned to Abbotsford could depart Anchorage on a morning flight and arrive in Abbotsford in time to play a night game. And vice versa.
"For the first time, the Aces will be able to have same-day transactions,'' said Aces spokesman Josh Bogorad.
Players under ECHL contract to the Aces can still be loaned to any AHL team -- Lafranchise, for instance, was loaned last season to both Oklahoma City and Houston.
The deal with Calgary and Abbotsford was initiated by Murray, who in June contacted John Weisbrod, Calgary's assistant general manager of player personnel, after learning the Flames no longer had an affiliation with the ECHL's Utah Grizzlies. Weisbrod was the Boston Bruins' director of pro and college scouting at the same time Murray was head coach of Boston's AHL affiliate, the Providence Bruins. Murray also knows Calgary general manager Jay Feaster, who was general manager of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning when Murray was closing his playing career with AHL Springfield, Tampa Bay's farm team at the time.
Murray said Weisbrod expressed interest and passed him off to Holditch. Parks then handled negotiations with the Flames.
Holditch said partnering with the Aces gives Calgary and Abbotsford a place to give their prospects ice time. And Murray said he is eager to work with the talent sent his way.
"I'm looking forward to having players to develop, to helping them make the right step in their career,'' Murray said.
By DOYLE WOODY