The AHL team immediately above Youngstown's CHL plateau is the Syracuse Crunch.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- Youngstown ice hockey's worst-kept secret was confirmed on Wednesday when the SteelHounds announced that they will be the Central Hockey League affiliate of the National Hockey League's Columbus Blue Jackets.
The announcement has been expected ever since the SteelHounds named Joe Gregory as general manager on March 16. Gregory's brother, Marc, is the Blue Jackets' vice president of marketing.
Joe Gregory said that while his brother helped him "get my foot in the door," his negotiations were with Jim Clark, the Blue Jackets' assistant general manager.
The SteelHounds are 2-0-0 in their second CHL season. In baseball terms, the CHL is considered a Class AA league when a team has an affiliation with a NHL or American Hockey League (Triple A) team.
The Syracuse Crunch have been the Blue Jackets' AHL team since the NHL expansion team was created in 2000.
The affiliation means that SteelHounds players could be called up to Syracuse if needed and Crunch players could be sent to Youngstown.
"It's a relief because it's something we've been plugging away at for months," Gregory said. "And it's a sense of accomplishment. I hope that in 30 years we're still affiliated with the Blue Jackets.
"We are very excited to announce this relationship," Gregory said. "The Blue Jackets have been considered one of the elite and best-run organizations in the NHL since their first season and to have them associated with our on- and off-ice initiatives makes the SteelHounds one of the strongest organizations in the CHL."
The Blue Jackets also have an affiliation with the Dayton Bombers of the East Coast Hockey League (another Class AA league).
Although the agreement kicked in on Wednesday, the Blue Jackets already have experienced a connection with the Crunch as three invitees (Kelly Thomson, Shaun Landolt and Wes Rypian) to the SteelHounds training camp first attended Crunch training camp.
Landolt, a forward, made the SteelHounds. The team later signed goaltender Brad Roberts after he attended Crunch training camp.
"Having that relationship and support from an NHL organization is invaluable," SteelHounds coach Kevin Kaminski said. "The credibility it gives our efforts to recruit and field the most competitive team in the CHL is something that makes us one of the top clubs that players would target to play for in our league."
The Blue Jackets play their home games at Nationwide Arena and are beginning their sixth NHL season.
Although most of the Columbus games are broadcast on FOX Sports Ohio, those telecasts are blacked out in the Mahoning Valley because Northeast Ohio is considered to be territory of the Pittsburgh Penguins. FOX Sports Pittsburgh carries Penguins games.
The Blue Jackets' top players include Rick Nash, Sergei Federov, Adam Foote and David Vyborny.
"We would like to welcome the SteelHounds to the Columbus Blue Jackets family and wish them the best of luck in the upcoming Central Hockey League season," said Clark, who oversees hockey operations for the club's affiliates. "We are excited about this partnership and look forward to working with Joe Gregory, Kevin Kaminski and the rest of the organization in helping grow the sport throughout Northeast Ohio."
The agreement will continue the Blue Jackets' outreach efforts as the SteelHounds will market Ohio's lone NHL club with promotional nights, ticket giveaways and special appearances.
The Crunch are starting their 13th AHL season and developing top players for Columbus in the past including Parma's Dan Fritsche.
The SteelHounds' home opener at the Chevrolet Centre is Friday at 7 p.m. against the Rocky Mountain Rage. Kaminski said the team has sold 3,400 tickets and is hoping the crowd will exceed 4,000.