AHL President Scott Howson on Record Attendance, Tucson's Future, Chicago's Affiliation Status and More

(Credit: Logan Foust/Texas Stars)

Under the cover of darkness (sort of), AHL President Scott Howson made his way to Texas last week for the presentation of the league's MVP honors, the Les Cunningham Award, to Stars' center Mavrik Bourque. Luckily, the former Blue Jackets GM and current league exec was as accessible as always and able to chat with 100 Degree Hockey during the second intermission of last Thursday's game against the Moose.

We touched on several topics through the intermission chat, including the league's record attendance; the future of Texas' geographically closest opponent, Tucson; an assessment of the unaffiliated year that Chicago had; and closed with a discussion of the 23-team playoff format.

The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Stephen Meserve, 100 Degree Hockey: Welcome back to Texas! First of all, congrats on record-setting league attendance this year. Obviously coming out of COVID, it is a big, deal to get back to those numbers. What do you attribute it to?

Scott Howson, AHL President: I think we have a great product; we have an affordable product. I think our teams do great jobs in their communities and are really important pieces of their community. They really work hard to market themselves and have done an outstanding job.

Last year, we set a record by 20% in terms of revenue, and this year we're going to be up similar numbers, not quite 20%. And just the raw attendance numbers are up quite a bit too. So I just attribute it to a remarkable job by our teams in their communities and our product.

Meserve: I know the Texas Stars saw some softness with some of their corporate sponsorships coming back after COVID. How is that faring across the whole league?

Howson: We set a revenue record last year from our teams, and we'll exceed that this year. Not to the extent we've exceeded on tickets though. Tickets are outperforming corporate. But yes, we saw really solid, solid corporate growth among our teams.

[Ed. Note: In an extended discussion afterwards, Howson noted that Texas is really leading the way in the way they embrace digital marketing in the AHL, setting an example for other teams to follow as best practice. This is something I discussed at length in the "The Hockey Isn't Enough" essay in the book "We Win Here".]

Meserve: Having two players on the same team win the marquee awards in the AHL this season was big for Texas. How was the vote count in the end?

Howson: It really wasn't all that close, especially for Logan [Stankoven] winning Rookie of the Year. That was a shoo in. Mavrik [Bourque] solidly won MVP. And I think that it would have been interesting to see if Logan was here the whole year.

Meserve: For vote splitting on MVP [between Stankoven and Bourque]?

Howson: Yes, because that would have been a vote splitting situation. But Mavrik was so consistent this year. I don't know if he led wire-to-wire, but it was almost wire-to-wire. He was just a constant point producer and really his consistency showed through. It's rare in the American League where you get somebody that consistent because sometimes they don't stay in the league and he did.

(Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars)

I'm sure there's bigger things on the horizon for him. But yeah, it was just a very solid remarkable year and I just love the way he plays the game. I saw him in the second period there, and I hadn't realized he could shoot the puck like that. He's got a good shot! He's got a good all-around game, that's for sure. It's been fun to watch him.

Meserve: We're not going to be watching him for much longer in this building, I'll tell you that. Well, speaking of buildings, Tucson is a team that Texas plays a decent amount. Obviously some changes there with the NHL team [as Phoenix moves to Utah]. What can we expect in the AHL in terms of their roadmap for the next year and the next coming years?

Well, we're working through that now. It's all very fresh. It's not even a week old. We're working with the Tucson ownership group to figure out what they want to do, what's possible for them to do. Are they going to stay in Tucson, which is a possibility? Are they going to try and move?

Meserve: As we've seen in the AHL, teams value being closer to their affiliates. I imagine at some point Ryan Smith and the Utah hockey club are going to want to have more control over that. [Ed. Note: The Tucson Roadrunners were not included in the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes to Ryan Smith's Utah-based group.] Have had any started have any initial conversations with the Utah group about AHL affiliation?

Howson: No, no, the reason we haven't is because we're 32 AHL teams and there are 32 NHL teams right now. If we ever get to the point where there's another team coming to the NHL, then that might be a discussion whether it's going to go to the new NHL team or to somebody like Utah, we don't know.

I know that in my communication with [NHL deputy commissioner] Bill Daly that certainly Ryan Smith and his group was interested in keeping the AHL team and owning the AHL team, but that remains to be seen.

(Credit: Logan Foust/Texas Stars)

Meserve: It's an ideal setup to have them close, for sure. Dallas and Texas know that well. Speaking of affiliation, this is one year of Chicago not having an affiliate, another divisional rival for Texas. What's your assessment after a year of that? Do you think that situation will get worked out?

Howson: We're still very hopeful it's gonna get worked out. I can tell you there's been twists and turns in this story all year long, but we've put a lot of time into trying to find a solution. I think we're getting closer to a solution. I don't think it's worked for anybody. It certainly hasn't worked for Carolina. They had to leave some players in Europe, put some AHL players in the ECHL. And they had trouble finding even partial affiliations. It probably didn't work for Chicago in terms of just the team wasn't as good... But I think if you talk to Chicago, it wasn't an ideal situation either. 

So hopefully, we're going to find a solution. That's our that's our one of our brand pillars: being the premier development league of the NHL. Sure. We don't feel good about having an NHL not having an AHL team.

Meserve: Finally here, one of the ways you develop players is by playing in the postseason. The league changed the playoff format a few years back to include 23 of the league's 32 teams in the postseason. How are you feeling about the opportunity that teams get with that format and how are teams finding it as well?

Howson: You've hit on the objective right on. We are accomplishing our objective, not just because there's 23 teams playing now. But if you look at Texas, you know, they had that fight, they had to fight for their seeding and it went down to the last week. If you look at the North Division, they had a wild, wild race that went down to the last game to decide spots. Those are all meaningful games. That's what our NHL partners wanted to accomplish. And I think we've accomplished that. 

There's some challenges with it. There's challenges like Texas had to play here on a Tuesday night two nights after the regular season. It's hard to sell those games, and there's certainly challenges on the business side. I think from a hockey side, I would think that not everybody loves the best-of-three. Had to have another best-of-five instead of a best-of-seven, not everybody loves that. But I'm not sure there's a perfect situation, but we'll continue to monitor. I think it's achieved its objectives.

Texas is next in action on Thursday night for Game 1 against Milwaukee