- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 18, 2004

HERSHEY, Pa. — Geoffrey Gaines, 7, bolted out of his mother’s grasp and darted across the Giant Center concourse, snaking through the between-periods throng and into a packed store selling Hershey Bears merchandise. His mother, Barbara Gaines, didn’t seem to mind one bit.

“Once they get past a certain age — say, out of kindergarten — you can pretty much let ‘em run loose,” the Hummelstown, Pa., teacher said. “They know where we sit, where to meet after the game, and I pretty much know who they run with. That’s one of the special joys of living in a small town — you can get away with that. Now, I’d never dream of doing that in Philadelphia.”

Professional hockey is still being played in North America and for the most part doing pretty well. The NHL might be suffering through its second lockout in 10 years, but in minor league arenas, business is thriving.

“Really?” Gaines asked when told attendance at Hershey games was up 13 percent this season. “I hadn’t noticed much of a change. Tonight we’re playing [archrival Philadelphia Phantoms], and they usually bring a bigger crowd, but other than that, it sort of looks like it always does.”

In fact, not much appears to have changed this season in the American Hockey League. Some of the names are different, but they are every year. The rules have a few new wrinkles, as usual, and there is a new team or two. But there’s nothing out of the ordinary.

“But that’s why we like it,” Gaines said. “We come maybe a half-dozen times a year, pay $60 for one of those family packs [four tickets, food and drink], and everybody has a good time. My husband watches the game, I chat with friends and Geoffrey — he gets to bring one friend to games — goes looking for video games. But we can afford it. I don’t think $60 would get you in the building in Philadelphia.”

Not today or any time soon. Today is day 94 of the lockout, the 67th day since the season was to start. The All-Star Game has been wiped off the books, and the full season likely will be next.

Giant Center is less than three years old, has a warm, small-town feeling to it and is fan-friendly almost to a fault. The facility seats 10,500 for hockey and is spotless. Ushers are everywhere with directions on how to find the closest bathroom. Small armies take positions behind counters to serve customers quickly between periods.

“We recognize people have choices on where to spend their discretionary funds,” said one team official, standing about 200 yards from Hersheypark, a large amusement park. “We want people to have a good feeling about the arena when they leave, whether the team won or lost. That’s what brings fans back.”

That approach appears to be working. Attendance is up more than 7 percent in the AHL over the same period last season to an average of 5,494 a game. Hamilton, Ontario, midway between Toronto and Buffalo and an easy drive from either, has had a 48.7 percent increase. Chicago is up 25 percent and drew more than 16,300 for one game. Lowell, Mass., near Boston, has a 21.9 percent increase, while Philadelphia is up more than 21 percent.

There are exceptions. Worcester, Mass., and St. John’s, Newfoundland, both of which will lose teams after this season, are down significantly. Portland, Maine, where Washington has its top farm team, is down somewhat, but club officials blame part of the drop on competing for fans with baseball’s Boston Red Sox this fall.

The ECHL, which once called just the East Coast home, now has teams in places like Alaska and San Diego and goes just by initials. Attendance for the 28-team league is up 12 percent to 4,380 a game.

“I would be pleased if we maintain an increase of 7 percent for the balance of the season,” AHL president Dave Andrews said. “We went through this in ‘94-‘95 and experienced some growth in terms of our exposure. And short-term this time around, it’s an opportunity for increased media exposure. It’s an opportunity for increased revenues from ticket sales, particularly in markets close to NHL teams.”

But are fans getting the real thing in the AHL today for less than $20? Or are they getting only a jaded look at the NHL’s future through no fault of promoters?

With the NHL players locked out, the AHL was flooded with more than 200 first- and second-round NHL draft picks to open its season. Youngsters, many of whom would have played with NHL teams this fall, were sent down to gain professional experience and work with seasoned coaching staffs.

“A lot of those guys aren’t trying anywhere near as hard as we thought they would,” one veteran scout said. “They look around, and they know they’re just marking time, that if there was an NHL, they’d be up there. They figure there’s no reason to bust [butt] because there’s nothing at stake right now. This is as far as they can go, so they’re just going through the paces. It’s a shame.”

Nonetheless, Andrews said, “The caliber of talent is the highest I’ve ever seen.” That might be an accurate assessment on paper. But Portland, for instance, had a dozen or more first- or second-round picks in its training camp but has won only five of its last 21 games. The Pirates are saddled with a porous defensive corps hindered by injury and inexperience and goalies who suddenly have forgotten how to stop the puck.

The Bears will be here next season and the ones after that no matter what happens with the NHL. Hershey has had a team in the AHL since 1938, has played for the league championship 18 times and has won eight Calder Cups. Its chances of winning this year are about as good as that of the NHL having any kind of season — pretty slim.

“No, they’re not very good, but that’s not important,” Gaines said. “It’s like going to the football games at the high school. You’d like them to win, but as long as everybody had a good time, does it really matter?”

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