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When center Jason Dale was acquired by the Komets from Ontario a few weeks ago, he immediately noticed a difference in the style of play.
"Time and space in general,'' he said. "Out West it's more defensive style of hockey, more like college style of hockey, dump and chase, hit and pin, grind it out style of hockey. In the big rink here, it's a little more wide open, a little more run and gun. It's more exciting on this side.''
After the West Coast Hockey League ceased operations in 2003, the remaining teams joined the ECHL as expansion franchises the next season. Though there are now 21 playing in the ECHL, there are really still two different leagues.
It's not just because there are 13 teams in the Eastern Conference and eight in the Western Conference. Partly it's because there are very few crossover games, but mostly there are different styles of play, according to Komets who have played in the West.
"There's a lot more banging bodies, a lot more fights, a lot more rough and tough play in the West,'' said Komets goaltender Ben Meisner, who came to Fort Wayne from Utah. "It's a different game. It's hard to put my finger on. Maybe it's because there are some bigger bodies and sheets are a lot smaller.
"There might be a lot more skill over here because there are a lot more affiliated teams and players wanting to come here for call-up situations. In the West, guys are a lot older and are winding down or staying two or three years in a row in the same place. It's a lot more attractive to play here for call-ups.''
Maybe as evidence of the more physical play, all but one team in the Western Conference has earned more than 800 penalty minutes, while 10 of the 13 Eastern Conference teams have received fewer than 800 penalty minutes.
"The West is tougher with a lot more hitting and fighting,'' defenseman Jace Coyle said. "You play the same team usually three times every weekend, and you start to hate teams in a hurry that way.
"There are some pretty good rivalries out there. My first game in this league, there were probably six or seven fights, and you don't see that very often on this side. This side has more skilled players and has that reputation. I think skilled guys out there want to come here and get more exposure to AHL teams.''
Teams are also built differently to accommodate the more physical play, several Komets said. They said another difference is that several Western Conference teams play on smaller ice surfaces, though the league guide book lists them all at regulation size.
Judging from the ECHL's transactions page, there seem to be many more call-ups from this side of the league. That could be because there are only four AHL teams in the West: Abbotsford, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Texas.
"It's faster in the East, and I'd say better hockey,'' forward Matt Carter said. "It's more of a skill game.''
Another difference is travel. The players said most Western Conference teams fly to road games because of distance or into California and then ride the bus. Almost every road trip in the Eastern Conference is by bus. The West also has better weather, for the most part.
Another factor, the players said, though no one wanted to be quoted, is that with so many fewer teams in the West, the competition level is different. Everyone makes the playoffs, and usually two-thirds of the way into the season everyone is locked into their playoff position. There can be an opportunity to coast through more games.
"I would say the age is the big difference,'' defenseman Simon Danis-Pepin said. "The guys are a little bit older out there, so the game is a little bit slower and the players have a bit more poise. Guys have been playing a little longer.
"Here it's a lot quicker. I like this side of the league because it's quicker and the intensity is higher and the skating. There might a little more hitting there. Fans are more knowledgeable here. There are not necessarily big hockey states there. Kids are hungrier here with more coming up and down from the AHL.''