The AHL has become the nation's adopted center of hockey with the lockout entering its 10th day. While many stars have gone overseas to play in Europe, be it in the Swiss A League or the KHL, many of each NHL team's prospects (and AHL lifers) are still playing in an arena near you. Here are four reasons to get into your team's minor league affiliate this season:
1. Better Opportunities to Get to a Game
Taking a family to a hockey game (or any sporting event), let alone yourself, is a pricey endeavor. The cheapest NHL tickets belong to the Dallas Stars, whose average ticket price is just under $30. Spread that over a family of four, including a few soft pretzels and a hat or shirt for Junior, and you're looking at a $200 night.
In comparison, the Norfolk Admirals, last season's Calder Cup Champions (the AHL's Stanley Cup), have their gold package of tickets, likely their best seats, on sale for $22 at the door, $18.50 in advance and $600 for a season ticket. Their white package, or their "worst" package, is on sale for $17 at the door, $13.50 in advance or $400 for a season ticket.
While the Admirals have since changed NHL affiliates, with the Tampa Bay Lightning moving to Syracuse and the Anaheim Ducks moving in, the team did well last season and should still attract a hockey-hungry fanbase in Virginia.
So, these games are starting to look a bit more attractive, right?
The other plus is that many AHL teams are located in non-NHL cities, which allows for fans that may not live in or around that locale to enjoy the games as well.
While Toronto's Marlies play in Toronto, no other AHL team is located in an NHL city. The Abbotsford Heat (Calgary) and the Chicago Wolves, who play in Rosemont, Illinois, are both in the metropolitan areas of Vancouver and Chicago respectively, but technically not in the cities themselves.
Other areas have a wealth of teams within about an hour's drive.
Boston, for instance, has its Bruins' affiliate in Providence, Rhode Island, an hour south; the Los Angeles Kings' affiliate an hour north in Manchester, New Hampshire; the Florida Panthers' affiliate an hour and a half north in Portland, Maine; the San Jose Sharks' affiliate 45 minutes west in Worcester, Massachusetts; the Columbus Blue Jackets' affiliate in Springfield, Massachusetts about an hour west; and, at the far end, the New Jersey Devils' affiliate two hours west in Albany, New York and the New York Rangers' affiliate two hours south in Hartford, Connecticut.
With so many options for so many hockey fans at a reasonable price, AHL games should be well attended this winter.
2. Young Talent on Display
A plus of the lockout is that the AHL will be stocked with talent from every NHL team.
Various rules and agreements with the CHL will keep many junior players that may have made NHL squads out of training camp in their respective junior leagues, but many young stars still will fill in the rosters of AHL teams.
Some may think an NHL seasoned player in the AHL is a negative, but in reality, it's probably preferable to having your stars go play in the KHL or the Swiss A League under an unaffiliated coach in a different system.
The AHL will see quite the influx of talent to start the season.
Philadelphia fans will see Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn suit up for the Adirondack Phantoms; the New Jersey Devils faithful can watch Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson skate with the Albany Devils; the Carolina Hurricanes diehards can fill Time Warner Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina to watch Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk dominate for the Charlotte Checkers.
Even beyond scoping out your team's next (or current) star, you can just gain a deeper understanding of your team's up-and-coming players. Each team has that time of year that the injury bug hits and the AHL coffers must be raided. Wouldn't it be nice to know who those players are for a change?
As it was with the last lockout, more fans will get to see the best and brightest prospects shine in the AHL before they take it to the next level in the NHL.
3. More Hockey
Assuming the lockout ends in time to play some hockey in the NHL, the reality is that you could just give yourself an excuse to watch and follow more hockey.
Diehard fans can root for another team, their affiliate teams, without any second thoughts. Casual fans can simply watch hockey as the NHL is in hiatus.
But even when the NHL returns, there's no reason to turn your back on the team you've adopted. As discussed above, these players are the future of your NHL team, as well as the guys that step in when needed at the NHL level.
Nothing bad can come of more hockey.
The same goes for any CHL or NCAA team that you may decide to follow as well. While the majority of those players don't make the NHL, they still give their hearts and soul to the game and that's never bad hockey to watch.
4. Oklahoma City Barons
This may seem a bit specific, but the roster the Oklahoma City Barons will be the shining example of how the AHL will be a sight to see this winter.
The farm team for the Edmonton Oilers, the Barons will be the beneficiaries of the talents of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Justin Schultz.
Nugent-Hopkins was the odds-on favorite to win the Calder Trophy prior to a shoulder injury that kept him out of 20 games. Despite only playing in 62 games, Nugent-Hopkins notched 18 goals and 52 points and was named NHL Rookie of the Month twice.
Eberle exploded in his sophomore year with the Oilers, scoring 76 points in 78 games, including 34 goals. He also was signed to a six-year, $36 million extension during the offseason, ensuring he stays with the Oilers for many years to come.
Schultz was one of the most coveted free agents this offseason after not signing with Anaheim. He will bring instant credibility to the Edmonton defensive corps
Watching these three play together in the AHL could be akin to watching Mario Lemieux during his days in the QMJHL. While that may be a purposeful exaggeration, the notion that the three could easily dominate is not.
Couple them with established AHL netminder Yann Dennis, who won the AHL's version of the Vezina last season, and other young Oilers talent like Magnus Paajarvi and Teemu Hartikainen, and the Barons should be one of the most dynamic teams to watch in recent memory.
Be sure to tune in on October 12 as the AHL season kicks off with seven games, including the Oklahoma City Barons on the road against the Lake Erie Monsters (Colorado) and the Syracuse Crunch down the road in Rochester playing the Americans (Buffalo).