Thursday, August 28, 2014

Royals hanging tough in ECHL's long game

Reading's 2013 Kelly Cup champs
The Reading Royals have staying power.

Nestled in the Schuylkill Valley, the 2013 Kelly Cup champions have stayed in one place for nearly a decade and a half, holding court on Penn Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets since the Autumn of 2001.

Since the franchise's arrival, only three other teams have matched the Royals' longevity in the ECHL: the South Carolina Stingrays, Florida Everblades and Wheeling Nailers.

The Cincinnati Cyclones disappeared and were resurrected, while one Toledo franchise went under and another arrived to take its place. All other teams -- Trenton, Atlantic City, Johnstown, Charlotte, Roanoke, Richmond, Greensboro, Greenville, Pee Dee, Columbia, Augusta, Macon, Columbus, Pensacola, Mobile, Jackson, Mississippi, New Orleans, Louisiana, Baton Rouge, Arkansas, Peoria, and Dayton have disappeared from the landscape. Lexington has come and gone, Long Beach and San Diego from the WCHL were absorbed then disbanded, and the league continued to drift Westward, necessitating a brand shift from "East Coast Hockey League" to the acronym we know today.

If there's one thing we can thank Columbus' NHL entry for, it's that there has been high level minor-league hockey just an hour up the road from Philadelphia. If not for the Ohio capital's successful bid to earn an expansion franchise, the Chill might still be there.

Instead, once the Blue Jackets gained entry into the highest level of the game in North America, the Chill packed up for good in 1999, laid dormant for two seasons, before relocating to Pennsylvania. In the 14 years since, the Royals have welcomed the Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals as NHL affiliates, and it's under the banner of the latter one where the franchise claimed its first title two seasons back.

However, in a move that makes geographic sense with the demise of the Titans in 2013 and the shenanigans surrounding the Greenville Road Warriors dropping the Orange and Black mid-season and signing on with the Rangers, the Philadelphia Flyers agreed to a two-year affiliation beginning this year. It could have been a joint affiliation had the Capitals not decided to divest their interest.

Reading are winners. The club has posted a record of .500 or better in nine of their last 11 seasons, after spending their first two years under two separate head coaches getting their bearings and finishing out of playoff contention. The Royals have posted five consecutive seasons of 30-or-more victories and three of the last four have been 40-or-more win campaigns, culminating in back-to-back franchise record 46-win seasons the last two years.

That run of on-ice success stands in sharp contrast to the actual fan support, which has slipped to the tune of almost 2,000 per game since the club's first year of existence and inversely proportionate to their win-loss record. Ron Hextall and his front office have a prime opportunity to boost the profile of all the Flyers' affiliates, but it looks to be easier with a new building in the Lehigh Valley than it will in a 15-year-old edifice located literally on the other side of the tracks.

Architect of this renaissance at the on-ice level is Larry Courville. Courville, who will turn 40 towards the end of the regular season, took over in the middle of the 2008-09 season for Jason Nobili and has completely reversed the fortunes of the Purple and Black. A former draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets in 1993 who suited up for 33 games over parts of three seasons in the late 90s with the Vancouver Canucks, the Ontario native has a connection to the early days of his team. Though not one of the first Royals to take the ice in the club's inaugural contest, Courville arrived in Reading late in the 2001-02 season from Hershey. Despite brief stops with Johnstown and Cincinnati, Courville returned to Reading in 2004 and ended his career there in 2008.

Courville's method of coaching and the way he constructs a roster are revealed in greater depth over here by Reading Eagle beat writer Jason Guarente. It's been enough to warrant the club's trust in the long term.

Like their new parent club in Philadelphia, the Royals have also been a part of an historic playoff comeback, albeit at their expense. In the 2010 Kelly Cup semifinals, Reading jumped out to a 3-0 series lead against Cincinnati, only to see it implode into a Game 7, 1-0 road loss to end the series. After back-sliding in the postseason the next two years by being eliminated in the second round and then the first, Courville and his charges finally put it all together in a five-game defeat of the Stockton Thunder two Junes ago.

Old League, New Goals

The ECHL itself is a completely different animal in 2014 than it was in 2001 when the Royals came onto the
Courtesy of the ECHL

Its footprint just after the turn of the Millennium was defined as the East Coast ad Central Midwest, generally East of the Mississippi River with a few exceptions, featuring more clubs in the South -- due to the rush to emulate the NHL's arrival in the Sun Belt -- than in the Northeast. Back then, the "E" was one of three leagues at, for lack of any better comparison than with professional baseball, North America's Double-A level.

Included in that mix were the West Coast Hockey League and the Central Hockey League. From the bones of those two late, lamented businesses, the ECHL gained Alaska, Idaho and Bakersfield, while the CHL offered up Colorado and Evansville to the current ranks.

With only seven franchises left after Denver and Arizona abruptly announced they were folding last week, the CHL appears to be on the brink of either ruin or absorption. That falls in line with the NHL's plan to tier their farm systems with just one league per level, as in Major League Baseball. At one time, the IHL existed parallel to the AHL and NHL parent clubs found affiliates in each until the 2001 shuttering of the former which resulted in several clubs jumping to the AHL.

If that plan comes to fruition, and it appears likely that next season would be the target, there will be just one league servicing the top two levels in minor hockey acting as feeder systems. There are 22 ECHL clubs at present, and if the health of all seven CHL franchises is deemed well enough to be folded in, then simple math tells us only one more franchise is required to bump the Double-A level up to 30 so that each NHL franchise can claim affiliation with one ECHL and one AHL team.

Since the Trenton Titans and Johnstown Chiefs have folded, Reading's natural rival is Wheeling -- the Penguins' farm club -- 300 miles away, while its closest rival is Elmira, approximately 210 miles to the North. Should absorption of the CHL be off the table, there aren't many smaller towns left that haven't either failed at the ECHL level or already support an AHL team. A potential franchise earmarked for Burlington, Vermont never materialized, and somehow the E was skipped over before legitimate minor-league hockey returned to Glens Falls five years ago.

Roll Call

Ryan Flinn was the first member of the Royals to make it to the Show, debuting in late January of 2002 with the Kings, after a rocket ride of 57 games between Reading and Manchester. His fourth career fight occurred against the Philadelphia Flyers' Todd Fedoruk in LA.

Over the years, Jeff Finger, Barry Brust, George Parros, Rich Peverley, Deryk Engelland, Jonathan Quick, Ben Scrivens and Philipp Grubauer have also risen from Reading to the NHL for various clubs. Chris Bala, a Hill School graduate and Harvard product who was a second-round pick of the Senators in 1998, also spent several years at the end of his career with the Royals.

Reading's season opener takes place in Wheeling on October 18, and its home opener one week later to complete a home-and-home set with the Elmira Jackals.
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