The Komets are heading into their inaugural season in the Central Hockey League, a AA-level circuit that has been around for 19 years. The following is an interview with the CHL’s commissioner, Duane Lewis, who is in his third season at the helm.
Q. Having absorbed four teams from the IHL and grown to 18 teams, how do you perceive the strength and direction of the CHL?
A. We’re very positive about things going forward with the two leagues (combining). There are 37 teams at this level of hockey. We think what we’ve done might have provided stability for all of pro hockey. It will increase the performance level for players, officials, everyone. We’re happy with how it came together, and we’re looking forward to this season.
Q. Do you view this season as a trial basis between the IHL and CHL?
A. We’re playing as if we’re all together and that’s our assumption. Certainly, things can happen. But we see this as one league going forward. You take it year by year if you will, but our goal is to make sure it’s one comprehensive and cohesive unit going forward. Each day, we want to make it stronger and stronger. We’ve done this nine years ago (when the CHL and Western Professional Hockey League merged) and that has turned out for the better.
Q. Are we heading to a time when the CHL and ECHL merge and there’s only one AA-level league?
A. We’d be doing everyone an injustice if we don’t look at that. There were five leagues a few years ago. You want to do what’s best for this level of hockey. You want to give fans the opportunity to see the best product. I don’t want to say it won’t ever happen, but a lot has to happen for a situation (like a CHL-ECHL merger) to occur. Maybe this is one more step to realizing what can happen in the future.
Q. You are now more strictly enforcing hits to the head. Please explain.
A. We’ve been monitoring this for many years. We have a comprehensive concussion-management program to make sure the players on the ice are healthy. We’ve followed what the NHL has been doing with their committees and research, to make sure it’s better and safer for everyone out there. We want to make sure the athletes are protected as much as possible. You can still hit the player in the head. But if there is a time where a player is hit by one of these dangerous situations, unaware of it coming from an angle other than head on, it will be penalized, and there will be a quick learning curve with this. The onus is being placed on the hitter in these instances.
Q. Teams can manipulate the rules so they have eight veterans in the lineup. Do you consider the CHL a developmental league?
A. Sure, based upon the number of guys (65) in AHL camps and how many will get recalled throughout the season. There are more players out there who need to be developed, and the AHL clubs have to ask, Where are they going to get their players from? They will have to look here. I understand the question about the veteran rules, but it was collectively bargained, and every team has a different methodology of putting together their roster and deciding what kind of makeup they will have. People have different philosophies. You will see teams with three veterans and others with eight.
Q. How do you think the caliber of play will be?
A. The focus is on letting the skilled players play, and that will free things up for the speed. This will be a very fast hockey league, where they have the ability to not be clutched and grabbed, and that will happen with the way we are calling games. There’s not going to be a parade to the penalty box, but you will see some solid body checks and guys will be getting to the net, and there will be a lot of scoring opportunities. I think people will be very impressed.
Q. It was controversial to decide 16 teams will make the playoffs. What’s been the reaction?
A. The reaction off the bat was something we expected, though not to the extent it went. But it means people were interested in the situation. Looking back and understanding where all those issues would come from, that’s understandable. But when you look at us compared to what other leagues are doing, it’s not that different. Look at the west division of the ECHL; they’ve had eight of nine teams make the playoffs. People see the playoffs as a second season, exciting for the fans. We see players called up at the end of seasons and teams are left short-handed. Should a team be penalized for that? We want the playoffs to be a fair determination of who should be the best. We’ve had some weird formats through the years. Overall, we think this is the right decision. Until we get to 20 or more teams in the league, 16 may be viewed as a few too many, but we thought this was the right time to try it and attempt it this year.