It was announced today that the Blue Jackets would join forces with the Fort Wayne Komets of the CHL to be their AA-level affiliate. The Komets, founded in 1952, are a landmark in minor league hockey, having been a member of the old IHL, the UHL, the "new" IHL, and now the CHL. There is no doubt that Fort Wayne is a mainstay in an ever-changing level of hockey, having stood tall while leagues and teams have come and gone around them. According to Pointstreak.com, the Komets averaged 7,825 last season through the turnstiles, numbers comparable to those of the AHL's Manitoba Moose or Hershey Bears, and above the average of any ECHL team.
The good: By the sights and sounds of it, the Komets take care of their players and their fans. With rockstar-like treatment, and all the fanfare of a big league team, the atmosphere and the winning tradition are great for any guy's confidence level. The handful of players who will make their way to Fort Wayne will also be close enough to be monitored by the guys in Columbus, and on a team where they will undoubtedly get a chance to see personal success.
The bad: They're playing in the CHL. The CHL is not known for it's player development. The ECHL, on the other hand, is considered the "premier" AA league, and has graduated 443 players to the National Hockey League. The level of talent in the CHL (and formerly the IHL, prior to the merging of the two leagues) is clearly below that of the developmental league. So while the players will be able to play worry-free and develop their talents, they are going to be playing against players below their talent level. It's difficult to know - if a guy has success against older, veteran players who aren't on NHL contracts in the CHL - how that will translate compared to the ECHL-level prospects, and then further, the AHL.
The ugly: The Komets have resisted the expansion of the ECHL around them. Currently, the ECHL has teams nearby in Kalamazoo, Toledo, and Cincinnati, and are expanding into Chicago in 2011-12. In the new IHL/CHL merged league, the Komets are close to only four of their fellow league members: Quad City (IL), Evansville (IN), Dayton (OH), and Bloomington (IL). Since the IHL has lost it's viability, they have lost opponents in Muskegon (relocated to IN), Kalamazoo (now ECHL), Port Huron, Flint, Elmira (to ECHL), and Rockford (to AHL). The realigned new league puts Fort Wayne in a conference with teams in Wichita, KS, Loveland, CO, and Rapid City, SD. Although the Komets appear to be financially stable, the expanded travel in the new league will undoubtedly destroy the smaller market, smaller budget teams. In effect, their refusal to join the ECHL – which is growing to surround them – is going to kill the teams around them.
While this all seems like a good temporary fit in a great minor league city, Fort Wayne is not, and never has been about developing minor league talent for the next level. And isn't that what the Jackets are keeping these kids on the books for? Don't look for this to be a lasting relationship. In the world of ever-changing affiliations, 2011-12 could bring a brand new slate for the Jackets.