by Kenny Lindberg
With the announcement of more cancellations of NHL games now into January, more and more fans are becoming worried about the state of the NHL. While this may not of been his hope, Gary Bettman can thank the “Filter Leagues” such as the AHL, ECHL, and Canadian Hockey Leagues for keeping interest in the sport at least in the northern half of the United States, and also Canada.
Fans in Pennsylvania are actually some of the more spoiled fans around with four teams in the state, and also Wheeling which is just a short drive away for those in Southwest PA to go and watch during the lockout. While Penguins fans have the Wheeling Nailers to go and support from a Penguins stand point, they also can take a long weekend and head out to Wilkes-Barre and see the AHL Penguins, and also travel up to Erie to watch some of the more prominent future Penguins come in and take on the Erie Otters. The other teams in the state include the AHL Hershey Bears, and ECHL Reading Royals.
Each of these leagues have seen a boost in attendance due to the lockout, which is showing that fans are not leaving the sport of hockey, rather they are focusing their expendable income on other forms. Also, Penguins staff members such as Bill Guerin, Jason Botterill, Dan Bylsma, and Todd Reirden frequenting these games, to check in on future Pens. For example, in Erie where the arena is under construction, crowds are regularly large, and the number of Penguins jerseys are almost to the point of Erie Otters jerseys on a given night. It also helps that Doug Smith brought the fact that Bylsma, and Guerin among others were in attendance at the second game of the season against London, that has likely helped spark the interest in Erie games amongst Pens fans especially on games Penguins prospects ascend on the Erie Insurance Arena.
The AHL is experiencing one of their most talent rich season in history with the likes of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Brayden Schenn, and Simon Despres all lacing up their skates in the league, who without the lockout would probably not spend any significant amount of time their unless on a rehab assignment. One quick look at the league standing shows just how deep and youthful most teams in the league are, as you can likely find at least one player on each team who would likely see regular playing time in the NHL and then teams like Oklahoma City who are absolutely loaded with NHL regulars.
Even a league like the ECHL is seeing some unparalleled talent levels as players such as Brandon Dubinsky, Joey Crabb, and Scott Gomez are playing in the league for the Alaska Aces. Even though the Wheeling Nailers do not feature talent like Alaska they still are benefitting by having players such as Reid McNeill, and Adam Payerl who without the lockout would easily be logging time in the AHL.
Luckily for Gary Bettman, the depth that sport has produced in recent years is so great that the sport will not really dip to a point like it did during the last lockout, especially in areas such as Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Minnesota in the United States, and also any of the current markets in Canada because let’s face it no matter what happens, their still hockey crazy up in the Great White North. The real test for the NHL when it does come back is how will the league bounce back in markets like Phoenix, Florida (both Panthers and Lightning), Columbus, and Raleigh which do not feature the quality of play during the lockout as the northern markets do.
Ultimately time will tell how the National Hockey League will recover, but no matter what Gary Bettman should send a big thank you basket to the other leagues who are presently keeping the sport alive and well in the United States currently.
by Kenny Lindberg