Sports for Dummies: Minor league sports are not as complicated as they seem

Ashley Potts

So far, “Sports for Dummies” has focused on popular sports: football, baseball, basketball and hockey. I am here to tell you that things get even more complicated. If you like sports, this is great news. If you do not, I am sorry.

I am talking about the intricate systems that are minor league sports. There is a lot more going on behind the scenes of your favorite teams than some sports dummies or new fans might not realize. If you are a fanatic, you might know this already, but bear with me. 

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Many sports have minor league affiliates, or “farm teams” as they are commonly referred to.

The lower leagues are the places that many young players develop their skills before they make it big. There are, of course, some young stars who make the major league team right away, but there is a whole system of minor leagues out there developing the rest of the players who need just a bit more fine tuning before they get promoted.

I am going to talk about this in terms that I am familiar with, so full disclosure — I intern for Colorado’s minor league hockey team, the Colorado Eagles. 

Those who have followed the Colorado Eagles since their inception know the intricacies of minor leagues well. The Eagles started out in the Central Hockey League, which was then absorbed into the East Coast Hockey League, now known simply as the ECHL. These leagues operated as an AA league, two levels lower than the NHL. 

Some of the players on the teams at this level have contracts with NHL teams. They were drafted, but cut from the teams’ camps before the season started and then cut from the direct affiliate teams’ camp as well. But they are still considered professional hockey players.

Their full-time job is to play hockey. They get paid and get stipends for living expenses. It’s a step up from junior league hockey.

There are many junior leagues around the United States and Canada, with small teams playing in lots of small towns. Those familiar with the tragedy of the Humboldt Broncos last season are familiar with a team that plays in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, which is one of many junior leagues. 

The hockey AAA league, or the American Hockey League, is where the Eagles now play as of the 2018-2019 season. Now they are only one step below the NHL. With the addition of the Eagles to the AHL, each of the 31 NHL teams now has its own affiliated AHL team. 

In other words, the majority of the players on the team have contracts with the NHL affiliate. Eagles’ players were signed by the Colorado Avalanche but did not quite make the team.

These players have the opportunity to be called up at any point. If an Avalanche player gets injured or they want to fill out their bench for a road game, they will call players up. Alternatively, if a player is not getting ice time with the team or has some skills to work on, they will get sent down to play with the Eagles. This means they get to keep playing hockey competitively rather than sitting on the Avalanche bench or just being cut. 

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The Avalanche are only allowed a 23-man roster during the season but have more players than that signed at any given point. The rest of their contracted players play in the minor league.

This season, 660 NHL players are AHL “graduates,” including 21 Avalanche players. This equated to 86.9 percent of all NHL players. Very few players are signed directly to NHL teams. Only the best, like Avalanche MVP Nathan Mackinnon and this year’s number one draft pick overall Rasmus Dahlin, make the team without playing in a minor league first.

There are other sports with farm teams that work in similar fashions. The MLB has Minor League Baseball, the MLS has the United Soccer League and the NBA has the NBA G-League. 

That is all talk that likely scares away the biggest sports dummies. If you are still reading, you might be wondering, “who cares?” 

Minor league sports can be just as fun as their affliate counter parts.

In fact, I would argue the more intimate atmosphere can be more fun at times. All the seats in the smaller arenas are seats that would be costly in places like the Pepsi Center, but can be very affordable for minor league fans. 

So if you think you want to get into sports, but are not sure about the major league atmosphere, see if there is a minor league team to help you test the waters.

Ashley Potts can be reached at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @ashleypotts09.