A nearly four-decade run of the American Hockey League in the greater Capital Region is about to come to an end.
The New Jersey Devils are expected to move their AHL affiliate from Albany to Binghamton. The AHL Board of Governors will vote on the move Sunday in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where the AHL All-Star Classic is being played.
The AHL — considered perhaps the second-best hockey league in the world behind the National Hockey League — has been in the area since the Adirondack Red Wings began play at the Glens Falls Civic Center in 1979. The wildly popular franchise lasted through 1999.
The Capital District Islanders played at RPI’s Houston Field House from 1990-93 before the franchise moved to Albany and became affiliated with the Devils. The team, the River Rats, was known throughout hockey circles for its iconic Rowdy the River Rat logo.
The Devils moved the affiliate to Lowell, Massachusetts, in 2006, but the Carolina Hurricanes replaced them. They stayed in Albany until 2010, when the Devils returned a team to Albany — this time leaving the River Rats name behind.
What comes next in terms of hockey? Nothing.
Albany County executive Dan McCoy is disappointed in New Jersey’s decision, but understands it.
“It’s tough,” McCoy said Thursday. “People weren’t buying tickets for the hockey, and their fan base wasn’t growing and they were losing money. We were trying to do as much as we could for them, and they got a great offer.
“They haven’t committed to leaving yet, but the [Binghamton] offer is better than what we can give. I anticipate that they will be leaving.”
It’s doubtful that McCoy will pursue another AHL team.
“We’re looking at all of our options,” McCoy said. “I don’t think it will be another hockey team, but we’re looking at some other avenues that we have been approaching. If it works out, people will be happy.”
McCoy declined to discuss what those options are.
The Devils would replace the Binghamton Senators. Binghamton’s current NHL parent, the Ottawa Senators, is moving its AHL franchise to Belleville, Ontario, next season. That was announced in late September.
The Devils rank last in attendance in the 30-team league this season, averaging 2,888 fans in the Times Union Center. The hockey capacity is 14,236. Binghamton is next to last with an average of 3,435 in the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena. However, the hockey capacity is 4,679, so the Senators are playing to 73.4 percent capacity, compared to the 20.3 percent for the Devils.
Last year, the Devils were 28th in average attendance at 3,366.
Last April, the Devils signed a three-year deal to keep the team at Times Union Center. But there were out clauses built into the contract that allowed New Jersey to explore its options.
“We’re going to look at everything [in the contract],” McCoy said. “[But] we can’t match the offer they received. I can’t see them staying here losing money. The last two to three years, we put a major push on trying to build up the fan base, trying to get the people more excited to see the hockey. . . . For some reason, the fan base has not grown. It shrank, actually.”
Officials for New Jersey and the AHL didn’t not return calls for comment, nor did TU Center General Manager Bob Belber.
Rick Kowalsky has been a part of the Capital Region community ever since he became the Albany Devils’ head coach in 2010. He and his family reside in Delmar, and Kowalsky enjoys living in the area.
“We are down in Delmar there,” Kowalsky said Thursday after practice at Knickerbacker Park Arena in Troy. “It’s easy to get around. There’s lots of things to do in the area. My kids are comfortable here. The sports that they have been involved with have been all quality associations. I just like the area.”
Forward Max Novak is in his second year with the Devils, but he’s no stranger to the Capital Region: Novak played at Union College from 2011-15, and helped the Dutchmen win the NCAA title in 2014.
“Right now, there’s really nothing any of us can do, so it’s out of our control,” Novak said. “We just heard the news. We just have to take it day-by-day.”
The Devils are preparing for a weekend home-and-home series against the Rochester Americans. Friday's 7 o’clock game is in Rochester and will be televised by MSG Plus. Saturday’s 5 p.m. rematch is at Times Union Center.
That is what Kowalsky is worried about right now.
“This is all stuff that will be addressed and looked at,” Kowalsky said. “But my job is to coach the minor league affiliate of the New Jersey Devils. Wherever that may be or continue to be remains to be seen. My focus doesn’t change.”
Devils captain Rod Pelley, who has been part of the New Jersey organization for 10 of his 11 pro seasons, will do everything to keep his teammates concentrating on what’s happening on the ice and not concern themselves with what’s happening away from the rink.
“We’ve got to focus on our next game and our task at hand,” the 32-year-old Pelley said. “Obviously, this will be in people’s minds throughout the year. But there’s not much we can really do about it. These decisions that are made are out of our control. Our job as players is to perform on the ice and be the best we can be. We’re just past the midway point of the season, so we have a lot of hockey left.
“I know the guys are excited for a strong push here towards the end of the season. That’s how we’re going to focus on the task at hand.”
At a glance
Here are some professional teams that have come and gone from the greater Capital Region:
Adirondack Red Wings (AHL, 1979-99).
Albany-Colonie A's/Albany-Colonie Yankees (Eastern League baseball, 1983-94).
Albany Firebirds (Arena Football, 1990-2000).
Albany Conquest (af2, 2002-09. Renamed Firebirds in 2009).
Schenectady Blue Jays (Canadian-American League baseball 1946-50; Eastern League 1951-57).
Albany Patroons (CBA 1982-92, 2005-09).
Capital District Islanders (AHL, 1990-93).
Adirondack Phantoms (AHL, 2009-14).
Adirondack Flames (AHL, 2014-15).
Albany Choppers (IHL, 1990-91).
Albany Senators (played in several minor baseball leagues from 1885 to 1959).
Albany Attack (National Lacrosse League, 2000-03).
Albany-Colonie Diamond Dogs (Northeast League baseball, 1995-2002).