After months of speculation, the Augusta Lynx have secured an affiliation with the National Hockey League's Phoenix Coyotes and their top farm club, the Springfield (Mass.) Falcons of the American Hockey League.
Sources familiar with the situation Tuesday confirmed the affiliation agreement. The Lynx have scheduled a news conference for noon on Friday, during which Coyotes assistant general manager Laurence Gilman will be on hand to announce the newly-formed partnership.
"Somewhere between eight and 11 players will be coming from Phoenix," said a highly-placed team source. "It's a done deal."
Lynx general manager Mike Pierson is out of town until Thursday and is not available for comment. Coach Jim Burton also could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Phoenix Coyotes general manager Michael Barnett and Gilman were out of the office Tuesday and did not return phone messages.
Lynx owner Peter Gillespie would say only that an announcement on an affiliation could come following the American Hockey League board of governors meetings being held this week on Hilton Head Island, S.C.
"I want an affiliation, no question about it, but nothing has been said about that yet," Gillespie said. "I can't tell you if they're going to be with us or not."
In May, Gilman said the Coyotes had not initiated discussions with any East Coast Hockey League clubs about an affiliation. But a source said Coyotes officials wanted to keep negotiations with Augusta quiet because of unresolved financial issues with the ECHL's Mississippi Sea Wolves, with whom the Coyotes were affiliated since the 1996-97 season. The latest two-year working agreement between Phoenix and Mississippi expired at the end of the season.
As for the new Phoenix-to-Springfield-to-Augusta pipeline, the Lynx have Burton and his ties to the Coyotes organization to thank.
Burton grew up in Brantford, Ontario, Canada with hockey great Wayne Gretzky, now the Coyotes' managing partner in charge of hockey operations.
Burton and Lynx trainer Brian Patafie also have relationships with Coyotes executive vice president Cliff Fletcher and coach Bobby Francis. During Patafie's days with the Calgary Flames organization, Fletcher was the GM and Francis was coach of the club's International League affiliate in Salt Lake City and their American League affiliate in St. John, New Brunswick.
Augusta has been independent the past two seasons, but Burton has made no secret about his belief that the Lynx needed an NHL affiliation to compete for an ECHL championship.
The Lynx had agreements with the NHL's New Jersey Devils and Vancouver Canucks during its first two seasons in Augusta.
"I think it has some certain pluses to it, and that's why we were looking for it," Burton said last season. "One of the big things is you get to work with young prospects and try and develop them for the NHL team."
Saving money under the ECHL salary cap is one of the most appealing benefits. Under the new collective bargaining agreement between the players' union and the league, the weekly salary cap will be $10,000 this season, which averages to $500 a week per player.
For players under NHL or AHL contract on ECHL rosters, only the first $500 of his weekly salary counts toward the cap. For the Lynx, acquiring Phoenix-contracted players translates into better talent for less money, while also freeing up room to sign more higher-priced ECHL free agents.