Andrews’ tenure marked by AHL’s growth
David Andrews is celebrating his 20th season as president and chief executive officer of the American Hockey League. In two years, he hopes to celebrate something else: his retirement.
“After this season, I’ll be here for two more, and then someone else will have the job,” said Andrews recently, while watching an AHL game at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn.
|Andrews presents the Calder Cup to Grand Rapids Griffins captain Jeff Hoggan last June.
What wasn’t known at the time is that the extension would be his last multiyear deal before moving into a consultant’s role when the contract expired. While that change might ultimately happen now one year later than the original plan of 2015, it’s clear that Andrews sees his next chapter ahead.
“We’ve been talking a lot lately, and it’s almost certain that we’ll extend the deal by one year — and one year only,” Andrews said. “The 2015-16 season will be it for me.”
And if that’s the case, AHL team owners say his departure will be a significant loss for the league.
“Dave is the best-kept secret in professional sports,” said Syracuse Crunch owner and governor Howard Dolgon, who purchased the franchise the same year Andrews took over the league. “He can easily be the commissioner of the NHL, NBA or any other major league. That’s how good he is.”
Dolgon, one of the eight members of the AHL executive committee, said the subject of finding a successor for Andrews isn’t a topic the group is eager to discuss.
“Every time the committee talks about a plan, it always comes around to, ‘How can we get Dave to stay around another year?’” Dolgon said with a laugh.
But Andrews seems intent on retiring in 2016. He does not wish to have another full-time job, preferring to serve as a part-time consultant to the AHL.
“I don’t feel like I have to get to the NHL to fulfill my career,” Andrews said. “I’m very satisfied by what I have been able to accomplish in the AHL.”
The accomplishments are vast. Under Andrews’ watch, the AHL has become the top development league in North America for the NHL. In 1994, the league had 16 franchises; today, it has 30. (Of those 30 franchises, 13 are NHL club-owned; 17 are independent.) In his 20 years as president, Andrews has overseen 95 changes for teams in NHL affiliation and 63 ownership changes. Annual league revenue has increased from $25 million in 1994 to $120 million last season, according to the AHL.
When Andrews started as president, about half of the players in the NHL had played in the AHL as part of their development. “Now, we’re knocking on the door at 90 percent,” Andrews said, “and every current NHL referee has worked in our league first.”
The most dramatic move in Andrews’ tenure came in 2001, when the AHL absorbed six teams from the folded International Hockey League — its lone competition as the highest level of minor league hockey. Those six teams also brought key media and population centers to the AHL, with the franchise additions coming from Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, Utah, Manitoba, and Grand Rapids, Mich.
“That deal does not get done without the spirit of cooperation that Dave demonstrated throughout a very difficult process,” said Mark Chipman, chairman and governor of the Winnipeg Jets, who represented one of the transferred IHL franchises in its dealings with Andrews and the AHL while he was an executive with the Manitoba Moose. “The AHL had the upper hand, without question, in the deal, but Dave never acted like it. He was a peacemaker, a facilitator. He convinced everyone in both leagues that merging was best for all of the clubs so we could be the best developmental hockey league in the world. He was right.”
In addition to serving as the AHL’s liaison with Gary Bettman and the NHL on experimenting with rules changes (see box) — “We’ve told the NHL, ‘If we can be of help, we will, as long as it doesn’t jeopardize the integrity of our competition’” — Andrews has created plenty of lasting changes for his own league. Visors were made mandatory for all players in 2006. The AHL All-Star Classic was started in Andrews’ first season, with the traditional All-Star Game being supplemented by the kind of fan-interactive and skills-competition events now seen throughout sports on all-star weekends. The AHL Hall of Fame was created under Andrews’ watch, in 2005. Andrews also has negotiated six collective-bargaining agreements with the Professional Hockey Players Association, keeping the league open for business during the NHL lockouts of 1994-95, the entire 2004-05 season and 2012-13.
Andrews does it with a staff of just 14 full-time employees. When he began, in 1994, the staff count was eight. “We have as many teams as the NHL and play just as many games as the NHL, so our staff carries a heavy load,” Andrews said.
But it is getting close to that point for Andrews to spend more time on the sailboat he cherishes, and to dote on his two grandchildren (with two more on the way) that he loves even more. Andrews estimates that he spends at least 100 days a year on the road, doing the majority of trips via automobile. “I lease my cars — every one one of them, for two years,” Andrews said. “In two years, I easily run up over 60,000 miles.”
“You can say it’s crazy to do the same job for 20 years like I have,” Andrews added, “but it’s very challenging, and there are always different challenges. It’s never boring.”