Earlier this season, the National Hockey League suffered its third work stoppage in 20 years due to a labor dispute between the owners and the NHL Players Union. Many contend that the lockout damaged the game. But as Patrick O’Rourke reports, the American Hockey League was happy to see the major players skating in the minor leagues.
The American Hockey League is regarded by many as the paramount of minor league hockey, a breeding ground for younger players to season their skills before making that next step up and competing with the world’s best talent in the National Hockey League. When business came to a halt in the NHL on September 15, 2012 at 11:59 p.m. after a collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players wasn’t reached, players looked for places to play hockey while the NHL’s latest labor dispute was being ironed out. The Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League became the destination for a handful of members of the team’s parent club, the Columbus Blue Jackets. Eric Levine, the Manager of Media and Community Relations for the Springfield Falcons, saw first-hand the effect the NHL-caliber players had on the Falcons.
"We certainly benefited from the fact that we had some really good players here that are making a positive impact for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are playing very well right now," he says. "We had Cam Atkinson here, who led the team last year with 27 goals, and Ryan Johannsen, who was the fourth overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft. John Moore was here, and Tim Erixon, two very good defensemen who have long NHL careers ahead of them, and the team took advantage of it right away."
In order for sports franchises to remain in business, the teams must turn a profit on a nightly basis. The best way to do this is by selling tickets and putting fans in the seats. Connecticut resident Chris Morgan regularly attends Connecticut Whale games in Hartford. With games not being played in the NHL, he noticed more crowds at the games.
"I do think there was a larger crowd this year, given the fact that the NHL was in a lockout," he said. "Down at the Connecticut Whale, generally the AHL average is, you know 4,000 fans a game. They maybe saw a few hundred boost, in average attendance."
The Connecticut Whale have had an average attendance of 4,540 during the 2012-2013 season, according to HockeyAttendence.com. The Springfield Falcons averaged 3,806. Levine credits the turnout at Falcons games to familiarity the fans have with the players.
"It certainly helps when you have players fans are familiar with because it entices them to want to come out and watch those players on a more frequent basis," he said. " You know, if you’re a fan and you don’t know too much about the players, you might not be as excited about it but if you develop an attachment and you’re a young kid and you’re a Cam Atkinson fan and you know, you tell your parents you want to go see Cam, you know, it’s a pretty good deal to come out and you can get season tickets for around $12 a year, which is a great deal when you think about the quality of the product on the ice. You’re not going to get that at the NHL level for the most part."
When it comes to sports, fans find the most familiarity with players that play for their favorite teams. The Connecticut Whale has the luxury of playing in a region saturated with New York Rangers fans. The Whale being in action in Hartford means a short trip for the Broadway Blue-shirt faithful. Hockey fan Chris Morgan was happy to see top players play in Hartford, even at the expense of the NHL season.
"They’re the top recruitment team of the New York Rangers," he said. "Because of that, a lot of New York Rangers players, I mean, there’s a number of contractual things that allow them, or not allow them, to play in the AHL given a lockout in the NHL, but those that were able to play, did play in Hartford."
While the Connecticut Whale has the luxury of playing in an area where many fans of their parent club reside, it represents an aberration in the American Hockey League. The Springfield Falcons represent a trend, being affiliated with an NHL team based in Columbus, Ohio while playing in a market dominated by Boston Bruins fans. Levine talks about building that connection between the Falcons fans and the NHL club.
"This is now the third season for Springfield with the Columbus Blue Jackets, so I think they’ve been kind of able to developa following here in Springfield for Columbus because obviously beforehand, you had people who didn’t really know much about the Blue Jackets, but now you have a lot of people who are maybe Falcons season ticket holders who go home, and on a Tuesday night, they’ll have the NHL Center Ice package, or have subscribed to NHL Game Center on their computer and they’ll go home and they’ll watch the Blue Jackets," he said.
The NHL resumed play in January and the American Hockey League lost many elite players. Meanwhile, fans continue to show up at the AHL rinks, proving the NHL Lockout has had a lasting effect on the American Hockey League.