The league, which combined teams from the defunct Atlantic Coast Hockey League and All-American Hockey League, began play as the East Coast Hockey League in 1988 with 5 teams—the (Winston-Salem, North) Carolina Thunderbirds (now the Wheeling Nailers); the Erie Panthers (folded in 2011 as the Victoria Salmon Kings); the Johnstown Chiefs (now the Greenville Swamp Rabbits); the Knoxville Cherokees (ceased operations as the Pee Dee Pride in 2005; folded in 2009 following failed relocation efforts); and the Virginia Lancers (now the Utah Grizzlies).
In 2003, the West Coast Hockey League ceased operations, and the ECHL Board of Governors approved membership applications from the Anchorage (now Alaska) Aces, the Bakersfield Condors, the Fresno Falcons, the Idaho Steelheads, the Las Vegas Wranglers, the Long Beach Ice Dogs and the San Diego Gulls as well as from potential teams in Ontario, California and Reno, Nevada. Alaska, Bakersfield, Fresno, Idaho, Las Vegas, Long Beach and San Diego began play in the 2003–04 season as expansion teams. In a change reflective of the league's now-nationwide presence, the East Coast Hockey League shortened its name to the orphan initialism ECHL on May 19, 2003. The ECHL reached its largest size to date (31 teams) that season before being reduced to 28 teams for the 2004–05 season.
The ECHL has attempted to be more tech-friendly to its fans. Some improvements on the league's website have included a new schedule and statistics engine powered by League Stat, Inc. (introduced in 2006), internet radio coverage for most teams, and pay-per view broadcasting of ECHL games through B2 Networks (a subsidiary of America One Broadcasting). In 2008, the league introduced the ECHL toolbar for internet browsers which gave users short cut access to statistics, scores, transactions, and news updates.
At the annual ECHL Board of Governors Meeting on June 15, 2010, in Henderson, Nevada, the Board of Governors approved changes to the names of the conferences and divisions. The former American Conference (comprising eleven East Coast and Midwest teams) was renamed the Eastern Conference, while the National Conference (consisting of 8 West Coast teams, including the league's only Canadian team at the time), was re-designated the Western Conference. Within the Eastern Conference, the East Division was renamed the Atlantic Division, and the Western Conference's former West Division was dubbed the Mountain Division.
The league lost its only Canadian team with the folding of the Victoria Salmon Kings subsequent to the 2010–11 season. The league increased to 20 teams for the 2011–12 season with the addition of the expansion franchise Chicago Express and the Colorado Eagles who previously played in the Central Hockey League.
With the folding of the Chicago Express at the conclusion of the 2011–12 season and the announcement of expansion franchises in Orlando, San Francisco, Evansville and Fort Wayne (both in Indiana and both from the Central Hockey League) the league played the 2012–13 season with 23 teams. That number dropped to 22 for the 2013–14 season with the folding of the Trenton Titans and subsequently fell to 21 with the mid-season folding of the San Francisco Bulls on January 27, 2014. On November 26, 2013, the ECHL announced that the Indy Fuel would begin play for the 2014–15 season and would play its home games at the Fairgrounds Coliseum, a 6,145-seat building located on the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis.
On October 7, 2014, the ECHL announced that the seven remaining active members of the Central Hockey League (the Allen Americans, Brampton Beast, Quad City Mallards, Missouri Mavericks, Rapid City Rush, Tulsa Oilers and Wichita Thunder) would be admitted as new members for the 2014–15 season, raising the number of teams to 28 and placing a team in Canada for the first time since 2011.
Before the 2015–16 season, the AHL's creation of a Pacific Division lead the three California ECHL teams to relocate to former AHL cities with the Bakersfield Condors, Ontario Reign, and Stockton Thunder relocating to become the Norfolk Admirals, Manchester Monarchs, and Adirondack Thunder, respectively.
The league, because of geographical anomalies, has used unbalanced conferences and divisions, making for some extremely varied playoff formats and limited inter-conference play. Due to travel costs, the league has attempted to placate owners in keeping those costs down, which has led to the sometimes-odd playoff structures.Notes
Representatives from all potential expansion franchises, markets that have been granted expansion franchises and franchises that have suspended operations must attend the league's annual Board of Governors Meeting between seasons and provide progress reports on their situations in order to keep their ECHL franchise rights. The Board of Governors then votes whether or not to extend the franchises' league licenses until the next Board of Governors Meeting.
At the 2012 Board of Governors Meeting, the Board elected to limit the league to 26 teams, with an emphasis on adding teams to the Western Conference. However, it was decided at the 2015 Board of Governors meeting that the cap should be expanded to 30 teams, hoping to eventually match the NHL and AHL's 30-team total.
The ECHL listed Reno, Nevada, as a "future market" and has been considered for an expansion team since the 2003 WCHL-ECHL merger, but efforts to establish a team in the market have been repeatedly thwarted by failed attempts to find or build a suitable arena. Reno has not had a minor league hockey team since its WCHL franchise folded in 1998. After being listed for about a decade, Reno was eventually removed from the future markets' page in spring 2016. However, in September 2016, new ownership group called Reno Puck Club, LLC came forward and began negotiations with the Reno city council about bringing in an ECHL team.
On February 8, 2016, the league announced its approval of the Worcester Railers HC as an expansion team in Worcester, Massachusetts, to begin in the 2017–18 season. The team will replace the AHL's Worcester Sharks that relocated at the end of the 2014–15 season.
On May 11, 2016, a plan to put the ECHL in Portland, Maine, by the 2017–18 season, with either an expansion or relocated team, was announced by a group of former Portland Pirates executives. Their intentions were announced while the Portland AHL franchise was pending a sale and relocation to Springfield, Massachusetts, to replace the relocating Springfield Falcons. However, progress to attain a franchise by the Portland group have since stalled.
While the ECHL has stated in recent years they would not grant voluntary suspensions of franchises for more than one year, both the Toledo Storm (now the Toledo Walleye) and Mississippi Sea Wolves (now defunct) were granted two-year suspensions—the Sea Wolves because of Hurricane Katrina and the Storm in order to demolish their present arena and construct a new one in downtown Toledo. The Mississippi Sea Wolves resumed play for the 2007–08 season, while the Toledo Walleye resumed play in their new arena for the 2009–10 season. The cost of suspending operations to an ECHL franchise was "about $100,000" in 2003, and has remained unchanged as of the 2011–12 ECHL season.
On March 30, 2009, the Dayton Bombers and Mississippi Sea Wolves announced that they would suspend operations for the 2009–10 season, while the Phoenix RoadRunners announced that they would cease operations at the end of the 2008–09 season. Dayton would receive a franchise in the International Hockey League and Biloxi, Mississippi would receive a team in the Southern Professional Hockey League that same year.
On February 15, 2010, the Tribune-Democrat reported that the Johnstown Chiefs, the only remaining founding franchise of the East Coast Hockey League to remain in its original city, would be relocating to Greenville, South Carolina, the former home of the Greenville Grrrowl (1998–2006) following the completion of the 2009–10 season.
The Victoria Salmon Kings, prior to 2014 the only Canadian franchise in league history, folded following their Western Conference finals loss in the 2011 Kelly Cup playoffs to make way for a Western Hockey League, (Victoria Royals) franchise at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre. RG Properties opted to withdraw the franchise from the ECHL with full approval from the league's Board of Governors, folding the franchise instead of selling the club's ECHL rights to be moved to another market, marking the end of a franchise that began as the Erie Panthers, one of the ECHL's charter teams.
The league announced on April 6, 2012, that the expansion franchise Chicago Express had withdrawn from the ECHL, effective immediately. The Express finished their inaugural season ninth in the Eastern Conference with a record of 34 wins, 26 losses, 8 overtime losses, and 4 losses in shootouts, eliminating them from playoff contention. The team also finished last in the league for attendance, averaging 2,508 fans per game (compared to the league average of 4,282 fans per game).
After the 2013–14 season the Las Vegas Wranglers voluntarily suspended operations for the 2014–15 season due to an inability to locate a new venue in a timely manner after losing their lease at the Orleans Arena. The Wranglers were authorized by the league to return for the 2015–16 season pending a successful search for a new arena. However, after a year of searching for a new home, as well as NHL interest in the Las Vegas market, the Wranglers announced on January 30, 2015, that the team had folded and withdrawn their membership from the ECHL.
Seven former ECHL franchises have been directly replaced in their respective markets by American Hockey League franchises. The Greensboro Monarchs were the first, being replaced by the Carolina Monarchs in 1995. The Hampton Roads Admirals were the second, giving way to the Norfolk Admirals in 2000. The Peoria Rivermen were the third. In their case, the replacement franchise retained the Worcester IceCats history but assumed the Rivermen identity for their first AHL season of 2005–06. The Charlotte Checkers were the fourth, yielding to a franchise that retained the Albany River Rats history following the club's move to Charlotte following the 2009–10 season and assumed the Checkers identity. In each of these cases, the ECHL franchise was relinquished to the league by its respective ownership group. In 2015, the three California franchises (Bakersfield Condors, Ontario Reign, and Stockton Thunder) were displaced by the formation of an AHL Pacific Division. Each ECHL franchise involved in the territorial shift were either owned or purchased by their NHL affiliate prior to being relocated.
For the 2012–13 season, eight teams still qualify in the Eastern Conference: the three division winners plus the next five teams in the conference. With the addition of the expansion franchise in San Francisco, the Board of Governors changed the Western Conference seeding such that eight teams qualify: two division winners and the next six teams in the conference. This eliminated the Western Conference first-round bye.
Similar to the NHL at the time, the division winners were seeded as the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference and the top two seeds in the Western Conference; the conference winner faced the eighth seed, second faces seventh, third faces sixth and fourth faces fifth in the conference quarterfinal round. The winner of the 1st/8th series played the winner of the 4th/5th series while 2nd/7th winner played against the 3rd/6th winner in the conference semifinal series. The Board of Governors also elected to change the playoff format such that all rounds of the playoffs are now best of seven series. For 2012-13, the Conference Finals and Kelly Cup Finals will use a two-referee system.
Because of the late addition of the CHL teams for the 2014–15 season and its subsequent conference alignment, the top four teams in each division qualified for the playoffs and the first two playoff rounds were played within the divisions.
For the realignment prior to the 2015–16 season, the playoffs changed once again to a six-division format. At the end of the regular season the top team in each division qualified for the playoffs and be seeded either 1, 2, or 3 based on highest point total earned in the season. Then the five non-division winning teams with the highest point totals in each conference qualified for the playoffs and be seeded 4 through 8. All four rounds will be a best-of-seven format.
The alignment changed back to four divisions for the 2016–17 season, but the playoffs kept the divisional format. The top four teams in each division qualifies for the playoffs and play in division for the first two rounds. After the division finals, the winners then play the conference finals and followed by the Kelly Cup finals.
In celebration of the league's 20th year of play, the ECHL Board of Governors created the ECHL Hall of Fame in 2008, to recognize the achievements of players, coaches, and personnel who dedicated their careers to the league.