The spring of 2020 was supposed to be a victory lap for retiring American Hockey League president and CEO Dave Andrews. After a 26-year run that saw the AHL become a coast-to-coast league serving as the NHL’s top developmental circuit, Andrews was set to retire June 30 following one more postseason.
Though Andrews is still stepping down (he will be replaced by former Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson), COVID-19 has completely changed the last few months of his time leading the AHL.
“It’s been very difficult,” said Andrews, who told the Sun-Times he will be transitioning to a mostly honorary position as chairman of the board, though he still will be assisting Howson. “It’s been the most difficult leadership challenge I’ve faced over my 26 years. There have been lots of challenges over the years that were formidable and difficult to resolve, but this one I think is the most difficult simply because of the uncertainty connected to it. Any time you’re in a leadership role and there’s this much uncertainty, and you’re dealing with as many stakeholders as we are and as many people impacted by our league as there are, it’s a pretty heavy lift.”
Andrews stressed the importance of getting a schedule ready for an October start to the 2020-21 season, even though it might not start then. The league is in communication with its teams and modeling the economic impact of a season that ended early and one that might start late and might have to include games in empty venues.
There are numerous other factors to weigh.
The NHL’s timeline and its demands are also factors that need to be considered, not to mention safety and health and the economic shape of the United States and Canada when the games do start again. For public-health reasons, all 31 teams might not start at the same time next season.
Twelve teams, including the Wolves, are independently owned. It’s an open question about how some independent teams would view games without fans. Andrews said that he has asked for feedback from those teams and that it would be “premature” to say what it looks like.
“The independent owners in our league are very financially capable,” Andrews said. “They are able to operate and will be able to operate at less than full capacity, but there are business decisions that would have to be made. It would be unreasonable to expect that an independently owned team would compete with an empty building for any considerable period of time.
“I think if there were an option or a scenario that unfolded where an independently owned team realized they would have to play the first month in front of no fans, probably all of them would be able to do that willingly as long as they knew they were going to be able to play with fans the rest of the season. But again, it’s just so premature to speculate on how that will unfold.”
Clearly, this is not how Andrews envisioned his final spring as the AHL’s lead executive.
“It’s been challenging,” Andrews said. “It certainly hasn’t been the easing-into-retirement phase that up until early March I was looking forward to, a fairly easy transition out of this position and training my successor and presenting my last Calder Cup and all of those good things, but it hasn’t turned out like that. I’m sure your readers can appreciate that most of us had to stay home, and if you have to stay home for 10 weeks, you might as well be busy.
“I have been really busy.”