In the NHL’s Absence, AHL Steps Onto the Big Stage

Posted October 28, 2012

Braden Holtby is one of several NHLers playing in the AHL this year.  Thusfar, he’s already managed to snag one shutout – 3-0 over Albany last night!

Let’s be honest: The odds of seeing a professional hockey game at Verizon Center before the AHL Showcase on December 6 (Norfolk Admirals will be “hosting” the Hershey Bears) are getting slim.  The NHL has now canceled games through the month of November, and the Capitals have exactly two home games in December before the Showcase.

While we’re being honest, let’s admit another fact of life: All of those who complain that AHL hockey is not the same as the NHL game? Technically, it’s true.  Even with the cross-pollination currently going on due to players on their Entry-Level Contracts (ELCs)down in the minors, AHL teams are (and should be) a half-step below the NHL when it comes to talent and speed of play.  That being said, the AHL is still the top tier of professional hockey currently being played in North America, and the league is doing its best to capitalize on the current work stoppage higher up the food chain.

When the AHL schedule was released this summer, one of the most notable features was a plethora of big-venue games – AHL teams playing in either their NHL affiliates’ arenas or special single-use venues.  Given that the league’s average attendance has been in the mid-5,000 range for most of the last decade (5,488 in 2005-6; 5,638 in 2011-12), these 10-20,000 seat events offer the teams a fantastic chance to appeal to a broader audience.  The Hershey Bears are one of the teams to see the greatest visibility from the unusually high number of special venue games, with three events scheduled between December and February.

The first is the above-mentioned AHL Showcase, where the Caps’ affiliates will play the visiting team in Verizon Center against the Anaheim Ducks‘ new affiliates, the defending Calder Cup Champion Norfolk Admirals.  Members of the 2011-12 Capitals roster who are expected to hit the ice include goaltender Braden Holtby and defenseman Dmitry Orlov.

In early 2013, the Bears will be playing in two additional special events, both in one-time venues.  The first is the Capital Blue Cross AHL Outdoor Classic, where the Bears host their division rivals the Wilkes/Barre Scanton Penguins (the Baby!Pens) on Sunday, January 20 at Hersheypark Stadium.  The other is February 24th’s match-up with the Albany Devils in Atlantic City (the site of last year’s AHL All Star Classic).

With the KHL pulling out of their North American games in New York, the AHL is slated to remain the biggest name around when it comes to professional hockey until the NHL lockout ends (whether that ends up being December 1, January 1, or next September is anyone’s guess at this point).  With the special venue games beginning on November 9 (the Hamilton Bulldogs host the Syracuse Crunch at the Bell Centre in Montreal), it’s a surety that those in at least one NHL town will be seeing their affiliate step into a role as a main attraction in their own right.

Only time will tell if the league truly takes advantage of their brief foray into the spotlight.  For those of us who regularly walk the halls of Giant Center, I certainly hope so.