Second of two parts. (Here's Part 1.)
When Andrew MacDonald was demoted three months into his professional career back in 2007 from his AHL team to the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL, he "was crushed," he said.
"I thought it was the end of the road for me."
What he learned instead is what more than 600 NHL players have learned before him and since. The ECHL, once a league defined by expired dreams, has become a viable training ground for talented players in need of polish, experience or, in MacDonald's case, just plain old confidence.
Launched in 1988-89 with five teams in four states, the ECHL today is a coast-to-coast league with 27 teams in 21 states and one Canadian province. Formed from the remains of leagues ridiculed for their brutality — the old Johnstown franchise inspired the movie "Slapshot" — each ECHL team today is affiliated with an NHL team looking to develop and/or acclimate late-round draft picks, European players, or free agents who might have matured late while playing for their college teams.
Last summer, Comcast Spectacor, the parent company of the Flyers, announced it had purchased a 28th ECHL franchise based in Anchorage, Alaska and would move it to Portland, Maine for the 2018-19 season. Couched primarily as a business decision — Comcast Spectacor owns the Flyers' American Hockey League franchise, the Phantoms, in Allentown and runs the business operations of the Rangers' AHL affiliate in Hartford, Conn., — the ECHL acquisition comes at a time when, in the words of Flyers president Paul Holmgren, "We have so many guys turning pro at the same time."
The Flyers already have the Phantoms and an affiliation with Reading of the ECHL that allows them to place up to eight players, including both goaltenders. That last part is key, and an ancillary motivation for the Comcast Spectacor purchase. The Flyers are bubbling with goaltender prospects these days, and several of their more prominent ones will be poised to begin their professional career in North America next season.
"They need a place to play," said Holmgren, who was named governor of the new Portland franchise.
Former Flyer Danny Briere is its director of operations.
While a disproportionate number of the ECHL's most famous alums are goaltenders — Jonathan Quick, Manny Legace, and Braden Holtby were once seasoned there — the ECHL is more than just a 6-by-4 depot. Michal Neuvirth is also an alum, but so is Mark Streit and, of course, MacDonald. Dan Girardi rose from the ECHL to become a key and well-paid defender for the Rangers and now, Tampa Bay. Now with the Rangers, David Desharnais, a 5-7 undrafted free agent out of juniors, got his chance with Montreal after scoring 106 points for the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones.
He has registered 254 NHL points since his promotion at the end of the 2009-10 season.
And the list goes on and on, especially over the last 15 seasons, when the ECHL alumni base has multiplied from less than 200 to more than 600. It has also been a proving ground for Stanley Cup-winning coaches like Peter Laviolette and Dan Bylsma. When the NHL season begins next week, more than 20 percent of its coaches will have ECHL backgrounds, and more than 40 percent of on-ice officials will as well, according to ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna.
"Back in the mid- to late-'90s, I think it was still more or less a league of last hope," said Joe Babik, the ECHL's director of communications. "But now that the NHL takes the league more seriously from a developmental standpoint, I think it's become a much more viable piece of the pipeline for players to come in and develop, learn how to become a professional and make their way up the ladder."
Alexandre Burrows, now with Ottawa, mucked and grinded for nearly three seasons in the ECHL before finding a role as a penalty killer in Vancouver. He soon became much more than that, scoring a ton of dirty goals while playing with the Sedin brothers. Burrows amassed over 100 goals and 200 points in the four seasons spanning from 2008 to 2012, making him the poster child for all hard-working ECHL hopefuls — and making millions in the process.
Last May, 24-year-old Frederick Gaudreau, who had been in the ECHL just two seasons before, joined the Nashville Predators late in their run to the Stanley Cup finals after injuries to two centers. Famously dressing each night in a makeshift locker, he contributed three playoff goals; two of them were the game-winners in Games 3 and 4 of the Cup finals against Pittsburgh.
"I think by going young, our league is much faster," said McKenna. "The speed of the players, the skill of the players from where it was even a decade ago — it has really come a long way."
"And it's made our product much better."
Like Burrows and Desharnais, MacDonald has parlayed his ECHL experience into a long career as well. He was in the NHL by the end of the season, following his demotion, and became an Islanders mainstay after that, playing top-pair minutes and playing well enough to induce Holmgren to sign him to that now-infamous six-year, $30 million contract in 2014.
"It ended up being great for me," MacDonald, the Flyers' most veteran defenseman, was saying recently. "I played on all different types of situations, learned the pro game and was eventually able to come back up."
Now 31, with two years remaining on that deal, his plight since then has been anything but smooth, including a season stashed away in the AHL because of the salary cap. But the bottom line is that he is, today, an established NHL defenseman who has averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time in each of his last three seasons.
And another ECHL success story.
"Ours are always going to be those great stories," McKenna said. "A lot of times a kid is drafted at 18 on potential. But by 20 or 21, they're out of the game. And then there are the guys passed over in the draft who are still playing at 20 or 21 in our league because of hard work and dedication and smarts in some cases."
"And sometimes they turn out to be pretty good players."
Left wing, Ottawa Senators
Center, New York Rangers
Goaltender, Carolina Hurricanes