SYRACUSE, N.Y. – As the owner of the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch, Howard Dolgon isn’t enamoured with another NHL lockout, even though it’s good for business.
He’s torn, understandably. He loves the business. But he knows what the NHL means to the game he loves.
“It makes it maybe easier to market our brand, but at the same time I think every owner in the league will tell you that we really don’t want a lockout,” Dolgon said Monday after perusing the NHL’s website. “I think it is important to us for the NHL to be playing and the NHL to be healthy.
“But that’s an issue that we don’t have any control over.”
Join the club.
The NHL locked the players out over the weekend when the collective bargaining agreement expired at 11:59 p.m. ET Saturday. It’s the NHL’s fourth work stoppage in 20 years. Day 2 of the NHL lockout on Monday saw no changes from either side as talks between the league and the NHLPA remain unscheduled.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHLPA special counsel Steve Fehr have spoken informally since the lockout began, and may do so again on Tuesday. But nothing official will resume until at least Wednesday between commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr. The two sides haven’t met for face-to-face talks since last Wednesday.
Attention already has turned to alternative leagues like the AHL, where players will continue to train for the season and play the game. The AHL consists of 17 independently-owned franchises and another 13 owned by NHL clubs. It’s the primary minor league of the NHL—nearly 90 per cent of today’s NHL players spent time in the A—and a safe haven these days for younger players on two-way contracts that remain eligible to play at the lower level.
Another prolonged NHL lockout like the one that forced the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season means better competition in AHL cities like Syracuse, increased attendance everywhere, and international media attention that it is simply not used to.
“The effect then was a window of opportunity for the American League to have a greater presence from a media perspective across North America and certainly more live television exposure, and to some extent an even stronger player pool than we normally have,” longtime AHL president and CEO David Andrews said. “I’m anticipating that will be the case again this time.”
The AHL’s 77th regular season starts Oct. 12—a day after the scheduled start of the NHL season—and training camps open in less than two weeks.
There’s been movement toward the A already.
The Buffalo Sabres announced Monday that it had loaned 20 players to the Rochester Americans. Among them were forward Luke Adam, AHL rookie of the year for the 2010-11 season, and Marcus Foligno, who played 60 games for Rochester last season. On Saturday, the Philadelphia Flyers assigned 26 players, including Erik Gustafsson, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, to the Adirondack Phantoms of the American Hockey League.
“At least I know my season’s going to start. We have camp on the 28th which is great. I’m just preparing for that,” Gustafsson said. “I think the AHL is going to be a great league. I think it will be the best league in the world.”
Among the young NHL standouts that could give the A a jolt are Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, the 2011 NHL rookie of the year; and New Jersey’s Adam Henrique, who clinched the Devils’ Eastern Conference title in June with an overtime goal against the New York Rangers in Game 6.
Ottawa’s Jason Spezza set the standard during the last lockout. Spezza, a Senators forward, played 80 games for Ottawa’s AHL franchise in Binghamton, N.Y. and had 32 goals and 85 assists.
Several Canadian NHL teams also sent players to their AHL affiliates.
Edmonton moved 26 players to the Oklahoma City Barons including Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The Toronto Marlies, Hamilton Bulldogs, Abbotsford Heat and St. John’s IceCaps have also received players from their NHL clubs.
“We’ve always been the second-best league in the world,” said Dolgon, who switched NHL affiliations from Anaheim to Tampa Bay after last season and has seen a bump in fan interest. “Now, we can be the second-best league with even greater talent playing in that league.”
If the lockout goes beyond the start of the AHL season, Dolgon said he expects attendance will be up across the board.
“I don’t know that we’re seeing NHL fans flocking to our ticket windows, but I do believe that our current fan base is more excited, and I think that’ll ultimately lead to more ticket sales,” said John Bitter, in his ninth year as ticket manager of the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. “Hopefully, we’ll start to get newer fans on account of it. Our hardcore hockey fans are excited about this. I think they’d rather see the NHL play, but they’re not going to turn down the guys coming back, that’s for sure.”
The public perception is that there seems to be a pretty wide gap between the union and the owners, which could mean another prolonged stoppage as the search for a new CBA continues.
“Obviously, the question is: How long will the labour stoppage continue,” Andrews asked. “There’s still a month to go before the season is scheduled to open. So, it’s difficult to say how it’s going to play out.
“We’re certainly looking at it as an opportunity again for our league to benefit over the short term, and at the same time recognize that our sport is better off with the NHL playing. The NHL is the engine that drives our business. For us, any kind of short-term financial windfalls or brand exposure windfalls are just that—short-term.
“We’d be just as happy if it all gets resolved and the NHL begins the season on time.”
He’s not alone.