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Manchester team will join ECHL, signs lease extension


New Hampshire Union Leader

January 30. 2015 10:17PM

MANCHESTER — The American Hockey League is leaving Manchester, but professional hockey is not.

Manchester Monarchs president Darren Abbott announced Friday that the franchise will be joining the ECHL next season, and that the Monarchs have agreed to a five-year extension with the Verizon Wireless Arena that will keep pro hockey in New Hampshire through the 2020-21 season.

“I’m here today to announce that professional hockey is here to stay for another six seasons in the fine city of Manchester,” Abbott said at news conference held at the Verizon Wireless Arena. “Preserving pro hockey in Manchester as an amenity to the city was always the goal.”

Manchester’s ECHL team will still be known as the Monarchs, and will keep its affiliation with the National Hockey League’s Los Angeles Kings. The Monarchs are currently the Kings’ affiliate in the American Hockey League, the top level of minor league hockey in North America, but the AHL announced Thursday that the Kings’ AHL franchise will be moved to Ontario, Calif., next season. Ontario currently houses the ECHL franchise that will move to Manchester.

The ECHL is a 28-team league that is a tier below the AHL in terms of on-ice talent. Manchester has been the Kings’ AHL affiliate for the past 14 years.

“I’m very excited to officially welcome Manchester to the ECHL for play in the (2015-16) season,” ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna said. “We’ve never made a foray into New England before, but now that we have the opportunity to have several teams in the area all of a sudden it made sense. For us to be in New England, which is traditional hockey country, is certainly welcome for the ECHL.”

Los Angeles Kings president Luc Robitaille said the lease extension between the Kings and the Verizon Wireless Arena was finalized in late December, and that moving the franchise’s AHL team from Manchester to California was strictly a hockey decision. One of the benefits, he said, is that a prospect will no longer have to take a cross-country flight when he is called up to the NHL.

“We felt like we were at a disadvantage by having some of our top prospects so far away (from Los Angeles),” he said. “We’ve always felt this (Manchester) was our second home. We understand it is a great hockey market. Very passionate hockey fans here.”

The Kings are one of five NHL teams relocating their AHL affiliate to California next season, giving the league a Pacific Division.

The ECHL features two conferences with two divisions in each conference. McKenna said the division Manchester will compete in will be decided next week.

Currently, the ECHL teams closest to Manchester are located in Glens Falls, N.Y., Elmira, N.Y., and Reading, Pa. Manchester will play a 36-game home schedule next season.

“The teams that are four-, five-, six-hour bus rides — those are the teams you’re going to see the most,” McKenna said. “Our goal is provide a good hockey environment in some terrific facilities like this (and) give the kids an opportunity to develop their skills and hopefully move on to the next level.

“From a fans point of view, our goal there is to provide a top quality product on the ice, surround that with great entertainment value and be able to continue to put a product on the ice that will be affordable for families in all the cities that we operate across the land.”

Monarchs executive vice president Matt Welch and Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas were the others who spoke at Friday’s news conference.

“Certainly the relationship that we’ve had with the L.A. Kings is going to continue, which is something everybody in the city of Manchester should be excited about,” Gatsas said. “It looks like a good marriage that will continue for another six years, which is a good thing.”

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