Above the 49: AHL demand will grow with NHL lockout
By Daniel Fung, Sports Network Columnist
Vancouver, BC (Sports Network) - NHL clubs in Canada appear to be proceeding with business as usual roughly a month before training camps are due to open amid the threat of a work stoppage.
Already, though, fans are starting to look at alternatives to getting their hockey fix in the event of a lockout.
For many of them, that means turning their attention to the American Hockey League, which provides an opportunity to retain some sort of connection to their team even if the NHL season is derailed.
The extra attention certainly won't go unnoticed by the AHL who, in recent years, have taken steps to make in-roads into NHL markets in Canada by staging a number of regular-season games in NHL buildings.
Over the past several seasons, the Toronto Marlies, Hamilton Bulldogs, Abbotsford Heat and Binghamton Senators have played games in their respective NHL affiliates' arenas, and there's no question there will be a demand in every Canadian NHL market - except perhaps for Toronto which already houses both the NHL and AHL club in the same city - to see AHL teams play in their dormant NHL rinks in the event of an extended labor dispute.
Only the Marlies and the Bulldogs - affiliates of the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens, respectively - have announced plans to play in their parent club's buildings, but it seems almost a certainty that more will be arranged.
The Flames would have high interest in hosting their minor league affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat, at the Scotiabank Saddledome. They've already done so on occasions over the past couple of seasons and, given the Heat's struggles at the gate in their own market, there would likely not be much opposition for a handful of games to take place in Calgary.
The same goes for Edmonton and Ottawa, whose affiliates, the Oklahoma City Barons and the Binghamton Senators, respectively, also were ranked near the bottom of the AHL in attendance figures last season alongside the Heat.
Edmonton was the most aggressive NHL market to pursue AHL hockey during the last lockout in 2004-05, relocating their affiliate from Toronto, although no such move is obviously in the cards for this season.
The Jets, out of all the Canadian NHL teams, may be the most lukewarm to the idea of staging AHL games in their building. Winnipeg hosted the AHL for an entire decade prior to the return of the NHL this past season.
The fact that their current AHL affiliate, the St. John's IceCaps, enjoyed tremendous success both on the ice and in the stands during their inaugural season last winter would likely make the Jets even more hesitant to pull them out of their market even if it was only for a handful of games.
Vancouver may pose the most intriguing scenario when it comes to potentially hosting AHL hockey this season.
Unlike their fellow Canadian counterparts, the Canucks have not made any attempts in recent years to have their minor league affiliate - be it previously the Manitoba Moose or currently the Chicago Wolves - play at Rogers Arena, although a major reason for that is in the past three years their affiliate has had to trek out to British Columbia anyway to play the Heat in Abbotsford, a city close to the U.S. border and located just over an hour's drive from downtown Vancouver.
The Canucks certainly appear to have high interest in the AHL especially in light of recent reports that owner Francesco Aquilini has his eyes set on purchasing the Abbotsford Entertainment & Sports Centre and relocating its AHL affiliate there.
Having the minor league team play a number of games locally would be a good way to gauge fan interest ahead of a potential significant purchase, although the Canucks could probably do that just as well by seeing how the crowds are when the Wolves make their four scheduled visits to face the Heat this season.
All that said, the ideal solution for owners and fans alike would be a quick resolution to the NHL's CBA talks and for the NHL season to proceed uninterrupted.
But with that scenario looking less and less likely, expect interest in the AHL to start heating up in a hurry.
08/22 09:56:13 ET