The Alaska Aces last won the ECHL's Kelly Cup in 2014, when their run to the third crown in franchise history was fueled by an affiliation with the NHL's Calgary Flames and Calgary's American Hockey League farm team, the Abbotsford Heat.
Several Aces players benefited from AHL-ECHL two-way contracts, which boosted their pay, and several NHL- and AHL-contracted players were assigned to the Aces. All those players furnished Alaska not just top talent, but under an ECHL provision they also delivered the Aces salary-cap relief and those savings were used to increase the pay of some ECHL-contracted players. And, come playoffs time, the Aces were so loaded with talent they routinely made an ECHL All-Rookie defenseman a healthy scratch.
"It was a perfect storm," recalled Aces coach Rob Murray, "but that's with any team that wins a championship at any level."
After lacking an NHL affiliation last season, and failing to make the playoffs for the last two seasons, the Aces on Thursday announced an affiliation with the NHL's Vancouver Canucks they hope can return them to the ECHL's elite.
"We are absolutely thrilled this came about," Murray said.
Aces managing member Terry Parks said Murray and co-owner Jerry Mackie worked to secure the affiliation with Vancouver and Parks signed paperwork Monday on a one-year deal renewable after next season. Vancouver is the NHL franchise closest to Anchorage.
The affiliation with an NHL team and an AHL team — Vancouver's AHL farm team is the Utica Comets in New York — usually furnishes an ECHL club benefits beyond talent and salary-cap relief. ECHL players know strong play can translate into a call-up to an AHL affiliate, and perhaps even an AHL-ECHL two-way deal or AHL contract.
Murray, entering his sixth season as Aces bench boss, said early indications are the Aces could receive a goaltender and four skaters from Vancouver-Utica.
"We expect to get players that are potential NHL players in the future," Parks said.
All three of Alaska's Kelly Cups came in seasons when they were affiliated. They won the Cup in 2006 and 2011, when they were affiliated with the NHL's St. Louis Blues, and in 2014, when they had the Calgary connection. The Aces were last affiliated in the 2014-15 season, with St. Louis and the Minnesota Wild, and began seeking another affiliation earlier this year.
"We want to be part of something bigger," Parks said.
An affiliation also usually grants at least a couple of spots for ECHL-contracted players to attend an AHL training camp.
Several NHL teams moved their AHL affiliates to West Coast locations prior to last season and although Parks said Vancouver has not indicated it will follow suit, he expects the Canucks to eventually move their AHL franchise to the West. That would make travel to and from Anchorage easier for players sent to the Aces or promoted to the AHL. In the upcoming season, though, the ECHL-AHL movement will be across four time zones — Anchorage to Utica.
The Aces' new affiliation benefited from relationships built by Murray and the club. Vancouver general manager Jim Benning was assistant general manager of the NHL's Boston Bruins when Murray coached Boston's farm team, the Providence Bruins. And Vancouver assistant general manager John Weisbrod was an assistant general manager in Calgary when the Aces were affiliated with the Flames.
"More than anything, there's a comfort level with these guys," Murray said.