As the NHL lockout drags on and more games are canceled, it's hard to find any winners. Owners are losing revenue; players, arena workers and team employees are losing paychecks; and fans are losing the chance to watch the sport they love.
But the American Hockey League has been a prime beneficiary. It's the best game in town in North America.
"We've had so much media coverage and so much attention, and the caliber of play has been great, with 125 or 150 players in our league and a lot of them, most of them, really young, outstanding players," AHL commissioner Dave Andrews said. "It's picked up the pace of the game. It's been a positive in every respect for the American League for a couple of months."
Still, as the owners and NHL Players' Association prepare for a possible return to collective bargaining negotiations this week, even those at the AHL level are rooting for the lockout to end.
"We felt all along and still believe that the NHL is what drives our business and what drives our sport. It's why our players are playing here," Andrews said. "We need the NHL playing in order for everybody to settle in and be looking forward in their careers, and for fans to be happy all over North America. The sooner they get back, the better at this point."
The NHL won't be back sooner than early January. On Monday the league canceled games through Dec. 30, a formality given the impasse between owners and players.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email that "I expect there will be talks [this week]. But no specifics yet on time or place."
Thursday was a roller-coaster ride for CBA talks at about the same time the AHL Showcase was going on at Verizon Center between the Hershey Bears and Norfolk Admirals. Washington Capitals coach Adam Oates said he's "not trying to get too crazy" paying attention to the goings-on.
"As I've been saying all along, it's a work stoppage, so it'll end when it ends," Oates said.
Still, it's impossible to ignore the lockout. Andrews keeps track via Twitter; Bears coach Mark French reads TSN in Canada to stay up to date.
"At the start, I was following it fairly closely. Once it seemed to be negative news after negative news, I kind of just stopped because I was worrying too much about it and stuff," said Hershey goaltender Braden Holtby, who would be with the Caps if the NHL were playing. "It's one of those things that you kind of have to be in the room to really know what's going on. You just take it as it is and when it's over, it's over. Right now, we're still locked out."
Because of that, the AHL features some ramped-up play because so many young players were able to be sent to the minors. The Bears have Holtby and defenseman Dmitry Orlov; the Oklahoma City Barons have Edmonton Oilers young guns Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle and the Adirondack Phantoms have Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, who would be playing for the Philadelphia Flyers.
"Obviously, it's a good league to start with, but when you have a work stoppage like we've had, pretty much every team has at least two or three guys that are probably going to be on their parent teams if it ends," Norfolk coach and ex-NHL defenseman Trent Yawney said. "It just makes for the competition and the level of play to be really high. "It makes the hockey more fun to watch, obviously for the fans, and developmentwise, it's really good for the young players because that's what they're going to see if they get to the National Hockey League."
It's reminiscent of the 2004-05 season, when the likes of Jason Spezza and Eric Staal played in the AHL during the lockout.
"A lot of those players that were having an impact on the American League at that point were young players," Yawney said. "The next year when the league started, they went up there and they were having an impact in the NHL as well."
Players such as Oilers prospect Justin Schultz and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Jake Gardiner should be able to do that whenever the lockout ends. As they play in the AHL, attendance is up about 7 percent from this point last year.
It's evidence of continued growth, given that there as a 4.8 percent jump from 2010-11 to 2011-12, but there's no doubt the lockout added buzz to the AHL.
Even if it hurts attendance or TV ratings, Andrews is hopeful something will get done to end the lockout and the "negativity" surrounding hockey.
"I think everybody's stressed and frustrated, you can choose your word. There's still some time," Yawney said. "I hope that it gets back to where it needs to be. It's such a great league."
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