The NHL is locked out.
And after watching replays of old games on the NHL Network all summer long, how is a hockey junkie supposed to get his fix?
Why, watch minor league hockey of course.
Here are eight reasons why Washington Capitals fans need to watch the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League.
The Giant Center in Hershey, Pa. is home to the Hershey Bears. According to Google Maps, it is within reasonable driving distance from three major facilities which host Capitals events on a regular basis.
And Giant Center is a mere 90 miles from First Mariner Arena in Baltimore, Md. This venue is host to the Baltimore Hockey Classic, a preseason game. The Caps were set to play the second annual BHC this September before the lockout canceled the festivities.
So for Capitals fans itching to see some hockey, simply reroute the GPS and add an hour or two to the itinerary.
The Hershey Bears have led the AHL in attendance every season since 2006-07.
The Giant Center is a newer arena, with ground being broken on November 8th, 2000 and seating around 10,500 for hockey. It is home to the Hershey Bears, the AHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals. The Bears are a tradition rich team with 11 Calder Cup Championships to their credit. The team, along with the Giant Center is owned by the Hershey Chocolate Company and is located at the edge of Hershey Park, essentially across the parking lot from all of the other Hershey attractions. The Giant Center is a real nice facility...
Guiher went on to give the the Giant Center a FANFARE Score of 3.1 out of 5.0, while the arena received a Crowd Score of 4.0. But Guiher applauded one item in particular, and that was the Food & Beverage, which received a score of 5.0. Highlights included "non-traditional foods such as Belgian waffles, pasta, soups, salads, wraps and Panini."
From my personal perspective, I was pleasantly surprised to see a different concession stand around every corner, often on both sides of the concourse. And I definitely did not expect to see specialty beers at a minor league hockey game.
Despite several positives, there are a few things lacking at the Giant Center. Perhaps an influx of rabid Capitals supporters will increase the Stadium Journey score for "Atmosphere" from 3.0, and the score for "Fans" from 2.0.
Hoisting the 2006 Calder Cup.
The Hershey Bears have been quite successful since joining the Washington Capitals organization before the 2005-06 season as the team's American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate.
The Bears have won three of the last seven Calder Cup championships, with a fourth unsuccessful trip to the Calder Cup Finals in the same time period. Those three titles include capturing the crown in their first season with the Capitals organization.
The Bears also repeated as Calder Cup champions, winning back-to-back titles in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
Even more impressive is that each of these three Bears teams had a different head coach.
Former Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau led the 2005-06 Bears to the Calder Cup.
Former Capitals assistant coach Bob Woods coached the 2008-09 Hershey Bears.
And current Bears head coach Mark French was behind the Bears bench for the 2010 Calder Cup championship.
Mark French is beginning his fourth season as coach of the Hershey Bears. And so far, he has been quite successful.
French won the Calder Cup in his first year as Bears head coach. And set several AHL and franchise single-season records along the way, including most points (123, franchise), most wins (60, AHL), most home wins (34, AHL), most road wins (26, franchise) and longest win streak (12, franchise). Under Mark French, the 2009-10 Hershey Bears also became the first team to win the Calder Cup after trailing the finals 2-0.
In recent years, the Washington Capitals coaching staff has had a strong connection to the Hershey Bears. Former Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau and former assistant coach Bob Woods were both head coaches of the Hershey Bears.
Caps fans may want to familiarize themselves with Mark French in case he steps behind the Capitals bench in some capacity in the near future.
Tomas Kundratek is considered the ninth best prospect in the Capitals system (Hockey Prospectus)
Caps fans may not see the present of their favorite organization during the 2012-13 season. But they can see the future.
Among these four are Stanislav Galiev (third best prospect), Cameron Schilling (eighth best) and Tomas Kundratek (ninth best).
Forward Stanislav Galiev was drafted 86th overall by the Washington Capitals in the third round of the 2012 NHL Draft. He has spent this season bouncing between the Hershey Bears and the Reading Royals of the ECHL. In 13 games played with the Hershey Bears, Galiev has one assist, eight penalty minutes and a minus-two rating.
Defender Cameron Schilling was signed by the Washington Capitals in March 2012 as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Miami (Ohio). Schilling finished the 2011-12 AHL season with the Hershey Bears, playing in seven total games. Four of those seven games came during the 2012 Calder Cup Playoffs, where Schilling scored two goals.
For the 2012-13 season, Schilling is back with the Hershey Bears. In 31 games this season, Schilling has three goals and seven points, with a plus-minus rating of six and 31 penalty minutes.
And finally, defender Tomas Kundratek was originally drafted by the New York Rangers in 2008, who then traded him to the Washington Capitals in 2011. Kundratek played five games for the Washington Capitals during the 2011-12 season, in his first NHL call-up. The native of the Czech Republic is now with the Hershey Bears, where in 32 games he has nine goals and 18 points, to go with 18 penalty minuets and a plus-minus rating of -10.
Capitals fans who can't wait to see these future stars in NHL action can travel to Hershey to see them play.
Dmitry Orlov hopes to return the NHL sooner rather than later.
After playing only 34 games with the Hershey Bears over two seasons, the 21-year-old made a praiseworthy NHL debut on Nov. 21, 2011 and played 60 games during the 2011-12 regular season.
Orlov plays with a physical style, which endeared him to Capitals fans immediately. The blueliner explained his philosophy in an interview with Igor Kleyner of Russian Machine Never Breaks:
I really like the physical element of the game, always have, since I was a kid. One of the reasons I came to play here – there is more hitting. I like that.
But in a surprise roster move, head coach Dale Hunter benched Dmitry Orlov throughout the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Now back with the Hershey Bears, the young defender is receiving valuable seasoning. In 18 games, Dmitry Orlov has one goal and nine points, a plus-minus rating of one and 10 penalty minutes.
This dynamic Russian is definitely worth the price of admission to a Hershey Bears game.
Braden Holtby rinsing out after a dental appointment.
Braden Holtby is the goalie of the present for the Washington Capitals. But Holtby is the goalie of the past, present and foreseeable future for the Hershey Bears.
Holtby has played a total of 21 regular season games and 14 playoff games for the Washington Capitals over the last two seasons. But over the last three seasons, Holtby has played 107 regular season games and nine playoff games for the Hershey Bears.
In his AHL regular season career, Holtby is 62-33-6 with 10 shutouts, a .912 save percentage and a 2.42 goals against average (GAA). Just last season, Holtby played in 40 games for the Bears, finishing 20-15-2 with three shutouts, a .906 save percentage and a 2.61 GAA.
Braden Holtby played seven regular season games with the Washington Capitals in 2011-12, compiling a 4-2-1 record with a .922 save percentage and a 2.49 GAA. But Holtby wowed the NHL during the postseason, finishing with a 7-7 record, a .935 save percentage and a 1.95 GAA.
And now Braden Holtby goes back to his old stomping ground. The presence of the eccentric Holtby would make the Hershey Bears a more attractive draw, as hockey-starved Capitals fans would be willing to make the relatively short trip to Hershey to see their new favorite goaltender ply his trade.
In addition, Holtby could help boost the drawing power of the entire American Hockey League, as he is one of several noteworthy names on the list of players sent to the AHL.
Capitals players fighting each other for the last Hershey Bears ticket.
The NHL has canceled games through Jan. 14.
And on Dec. 31, the two sides of the NHL labor dispute in a meeting summed up by Brian Stubits of CBS Sports Eye on Hockey: "For the first time in weeks, the NHL and NHLPA brass met face to face to try to reignite the labor negotiations and save a season that is a couple weeks from being canceled."
A lost NHL season would mean the second cancellation of the Stanley Cup Finals in the span of only nine years.
By comparison, the AHL's Calder Cup Finals has never been canceled in its 76-year history.
Something for Washington Capitals fans to think about as they make their hockey plans this spring.