Difference Between Hockey Leagues: NHL – AHL – ECHL


Hockey is an amazing sport that has been played since the early 1900s. It started as a popular Canadian sport but has since gained popularity across the entire world. With so many different teams, hockey has to be split up into different leagues based on skill.

It can be hard to keep up with all of the different leagues and teams in hockey. The three most popular hockey leagues we hear about are the NHL, AHL, and ECHL. The main difference between these three leagues is that the NHL is a professional league, and the AHL and ECHL are minor professional leagues.

The NHL is considered to be the best professional hockey league in the entire world. When hockey players are on AHL, ECHL, or other minor professional leagues, they are all working as hard as they can to become a member of an NHL team.

We are going to discuss what each different league is, what teams play for that league, and what the qualifications are for a player to join a team in each league.

What is NHL?

NHL stands for National Hockey League and is a professional ice hockey league in North America. It was first formed in Canada in 1917 and consisted of four Canadian teams. The NHL quickly became a league full of the best hockey players on the continent.

Rising from four to ten teams, the league then dropped to six and stayed there from 1942 to 1967. These six teams included the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers, the Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, and Toronto Maple Leafs. They are known today as the Original Six.

Each year, the NHL teams compete to make it to the playoff championship game. At the playoffs, the winning team will be awarded the Stanley Cup. The Stanley Cup is an incredible honor as it is the oldest professional sports trophy in existence.

As the NHL expanded, more teams were added to the league. Today, the NHL consists of 31 teams that make up two conferences and four different divisions. The conferences are Eastern, with Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions, and Western, with Central and Pacific divisions.

Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference contains the Atlantic Division and the Metropolitan division. The Atlantic Division hosts the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, and the Boston Bruins.

The Metropolitan Division hosts the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Carolina Hurricanes.

Western Conference

The Western Conference contains the Central Division and the Pacific Division. The Central Division hosts the Winnipeg Jets, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, and Chicago Blackhawks.

The Pacific Division hosts the Vegas Golden Knights, Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Arizona Coyotes, and the Anaheim Ducks.

What is AHL?

AHL stands for American Hockey League and is considered the highest-level minor professional league. The main purpose of the AHL is to be the primary league of development for the NHL. As of the 2010-2011 season, each team in the AHL has an affiliation with an NHL team, but not every NHL team has an affiliation.

When an NHL team doesn’t have an affiliation with the AHL, players will just be assigned to other teams in the AHL that have an affiliation with a different NHL team. There are currently 26 AHL teams in the United States and five located in Canada. Each year, the AHL teams compete in the playoff game to win the Calder Cup. 

Just like the NHL, the AHL is made up of two conferences and four divisions. They are also called the Eastern Conference and Western Conference, with the divisions being named Atlantic, North, Central, and Pacific.

Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference is made up of the Atlantic Division and the North Division. The Atlantic Division hosts the Scranton Penguins, Providence Bruins, Springfield Thunderbirds, Lehigh Valley Phantoms, Hershey Bears, Hartford Wolf Pack, Charlotte Checkers, and the Bridgeport Islanders.

The North Division hosts the Utica Comets, Toronto Marlies, Syracuse Crunch, Rochester Americans, Laval Rocket, Cleveland Monsters, and the Belleville Senators.

Western Conference

The Western Conference is made up of the Central Division and the Pacific Division. The Central Division hosts the Texas Stars, Rockford IceHogs, Milwaukee Admirals, Manitoba Moose, Iowa Wild, Grand Rapids Griffins, and the Chicago Wolves.

The Pacific Division hosts the Tucson Roadrunners, Stockton Heat, San Jose Barracuda, San Diego Gulls, Ontario Reign, Henderson Silver Knights, Colorado Eagles, Bakersfield Condors, and the Abbotsford Canucks.

what Are NHL Affiliations with AHL teams?

Most NHL teams have an affiliation or own an AHL team. Every AHL team has an affiliation with one NHL team. There are only 3 NHL teams that have opted out of affiliations: Charlotte Checkers, Milwaukee Admirals, and Springfield Thunderbirds.

  • Anaheim Ducks own the San Diego Gulls.
  • Arizona Coyotes own the Tucson Roadrunners.
  • Boston Bruins have an affiliation with the Providence Bruins through the 28-29 season.
  • Buffalo Sabres owns the Rochester Americans.
  • Calgary Flames own the Stockton Heat.
  • Carolina Hurricanes minority owner, Michael Kahn, owns the Charlotte Checkers.
  • Chicago Blackhawks have an affiliation with the Rockford IceHogs through the 21-22 season.
  • Colorado Avalanche has an affiliation with the Colorado Eagles through the 27-28 season.
  • Columbus Blue Jackets have an extended affiliation with the Cleveland Monsters.
  • Dallas Stars own the Texas Stars.
  • Detroit Red Wings have an affiliation with the Grand Rapids Griffins through the 21-22 season.
  • Edmonton Oilers own the Bakersfield Condors.
  • Florida Panthers have a multi-year affiliation with the Springfield Thunderbirds as of 2016.
  • Los Angeles Kings owner, the Anschutz Entertainment Group, owns the Ontario Reign.
  • Minnesota Wild owns the Iowa Wild.
  • Montreal Canadiens own the Laval Rocket.
  • Nashville Predators have an affiliation with the Milwaukee Admirals through the 21-22 season.
  • New Jersey Devils own the Binghamton Devils.
  • New York Islanders own the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
  • New York Rangers own the Hartford Wolf Pack.
  • Ottawa Senators own the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
  • Pittsburgh Penguins own the Scranton Penguins.
  • San Jose Sharks own the San Jose Barracuda.
  • St. Louis Blues have an affiliation with the San Antonio Rampage through the 22-23 season.
  • Tampa Bay Lightning has an affiliation with the Syracuse Crunch through the 22-23 season, with a mutual option for the 23-24 and 24-25 seasons.
  • Toronto Maple Leafs own the Toronto Marlies.
  • Vancouver Canucks own the Utica Comets.
  • Vegas Golden Knights have an affiliation with the Chicago Wolves through the 21-22 season.
  • Washington Capitals had an affiliation with the Hershey Bears through the 19-20 season.
  • Winnipeg Jets own the Manitoba Moose.

What is ECHL?

ECHL stands for East Coast Hockey League and is considered to be a mid-level minor professional league. The ECHL is a tier below the AHL. In 1988, the ECHL was formed with just five teams. Two of the teams are no longer playing, and the other three teams go by different names.

These five teams were the Carolina Thunderbirds (now Wheeling Nailers), Erie Panthers (folded as the Victoria Salmon Kings in 2011), Johnstown Chiefs (now Greenville Swamp Rabbits), Knoxville Cherokees (folded in 2009), and the Virginia Lancers (now Utah Grizzlies).

Just like the NHL and AHL, the ECHL consists of two conferences and four leagues. The conferences are also known as Eastern and Western, but the divisions are named differently. There is the North Division, South Division, Central Division, and Mountain Division. There are 25 United States teams and 2 Canadian teams.

The ECHL also has affiliations with the NHL. Players on certain ECHL teams will be drafted to different NHL teams when their time comes.

Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference is made up of the North Division and the South Division. The North Division hosts the Worcester Railers, Trois-Rivieres Lions, Reading Royals, Newfoundland Growlers, Maine Mariners, and the Adirondack Thunder.

The South Division hosts the South Carolina Stingrays, Orlando Solar Bears, Norfolk Admirals, Jacksonville Icemen, Greenville Swamp Rabbits, Florida Everblades, and the Atlanta Gladiators. 

Western Conference

The Western Conference is made up of the Central Division and the Mountain Division. The Central Division hosts the Wheeling Nailers, Toledo Walleye, Kalamazoo Wings, Iowa Heartlanders, Indy Fuel, Fort Wayne Komets, and Cincinnati Cyclones.

The Mountain Division hosts the Wichita Thunder, Utah Grizzlies, Tulsa Oilers, Rapid City Rush, Kansas City Mavericks, Idaho Steelheads, and Allen Americans.

What Are NHL Affiliations with ECHL Teams?

Not every NHL team has an affiliation with an ECHL team. However, there are some teams that do have affiliations. 

  • Arizona Coyotes have an affiliation with the Rapid City Rush through the 20-21 season.
  • Boston Bruins had an affiliation with the Atlanta Gladiators through the 19-20 season.
  • Calgary Flames had an affiliation with the Kansas City Mavericks through the 19-20 season.
  • Chicago Blackhawks have an affiliation with the Indy Fuel through the 21-22 season.
  • Colorado Avalanche has an affiliation with the Utah Grizzlies effective as of July 1, 2018.
  • Dallas Stars had an affiliation with the Idaho Steelheads through the 19-20 season.
  • Detroit Red Wings have an affiliation with the Toledo Walleye through the 20-21 season.
  • Edmonton Oilers had an affiliation with the Wichita Thunder through the 19-20 season.
  • New Jersey Devils had an affiliation with the Adirondack Thunder through the 19-20 season.
  • New York Islanders had an affiliation with the Worcester Railers through the 19-20 season.
  • Philadelphia Flyers had an affiliation with the Reading Royals through the 19-20 season with the option for signing for the 20-21 season.
  • Pittsburgh Penguins had an affiliation with the Wheeling Nailers through the 19-20 season.
  • St. Louis Blues had an affiliation with the Tulsa Oilers through the 19-20 season.
  • Tampa Bay Lightning has an affiliation with the Orlando Solar Bears through the 20-21 season.
  • Vancouver Canucks have an affiliation with the Kalamazoo Wings through the 20-21 season.
  • Vegas Golden Knights had an affiliation with the Fort Wayne Komets through the 19-20 season.
  • Washington Capitals had an affiliation with the South Carolina Stingrays through the 19-20 season.
  • Winnipeg Jets had an affiliation with the Jacksonville Icemen for the 19-20 season.

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What Are The Main Differences Between NHL – AHL – ECHL?

Comparison ParametersNHLAHLECHL
Full-Form NameNational Hockey LeagueAmerican Hockey LeagueEast Coast Hockey League
Team FormationAbility to trade and add players as they wish (per their own requirements)Cannot trade or add players. NHL decides the teams and playersDoes not hold a draft, teams are responsible for recruiting and signing players
SuperiorityTop-tier/premier professional leagueHighest minor professional leagueMid-level minor professional league
Average Wages$1.54M to $3.32M per season$50,000 to $1M per season$15,000 or higher per season
Experience/SkillHighly skilled, top players in the sportVery skilled playersSkilled players
What are The Main Differences Between NHL – AHL – ECHL?

FAQ

Does the NHL Own the AHL?

The AHL is not owned by the NHL. The two associations operate separately and are owned by different people. While owned separately, the leagues work together and have a relationship with each other.

There are some AHL teams that are owned by the same owners as an NHL team, but the two organizations are separate.

Does Every NHL Team Have an AHL Affiliate?

Every AHL has an NHL affiliate, but not every NHL team has an AHL affiliate. For the 2021 season, three NHL teams have opted out of having an affiliation with an AHL team. These teams include the Charlotte Checkers, Milwaukee Admirals, and Springfield Thunderbirds.

Previously, the Charlotte Checkers were the affiliate for the Florida Panthers, the Milwaukee Admirals were the affiliate for the Nashville Predators, and the Springfield Thunderbirds were the affiliate for the St. Louis Blues.

Do ECHL Players Make It to the NHL?

Not all ECHL players will make their way onto an NHL team, but it is definitely a possibility. In 2019, 57 players from ECHL teams were playing in the NHL. In 2020, there were 91 previous ECHL players on an NHL team. Since the 2002-2003 season, the ECHL has seen more than 486 players on NHL teams. In the first 10 seasons, 97 pl

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