SYRACUSE, N.Y. — As the owner of the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch, Howard Dolgon isn’t enamored with another NHL lockout, even though it’s good for business.
He’s torn, understandably. He loves the business. But he knows what the NHL means to the game he loves.
“It makes it maybe easier to market our brand, but at the same time I think every owner in the league will tell you that we really don’t want a lockout,” Dolgon said Monday after perusing the NHL’s Web site. “I think it is important to us for the NHL to be playing and the NHL to be healthy.
“But that’s an issue that we don’t have any control over.”
Join the club.
The NHL locked the players out over the weekend when the collective bargaining agreement expired at 11:59 p.m. Saturday. It’s the NHL’s fourth work stoppage in 20 years.
Attention already has turned to alternative leagues like the AHL, where players will continue to train for the season and play the game. The AHL is the primary minor league of the NHL – nearly 90 percent of today’s NHL players spent time in the A – and a safe haven these days for younger players on two-way contracts who remain eligible to play at the lower level.
Another prolonged NHL lockout like the one that forced the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season means better competition in AHL cities like Syracuse, increased attendance, and international media attention that it is simply not used to.
“The effect then was a window of opportunity for the American League to have a greater presence from a media perspective across North America and certainly more live television exposure, and to some extent an even stronger player pool than we normally have,” longtime AHL president and CEO David Andrews said. “I’m anticipating that will be the case again this time.”
There’s been movement toward the A already.
The Buffalo Sabres announced Monday that it had loaned 20 players to the Rochester Americans. Among them were forward Luke Adam, the AHL rookie of the year for the 2010-11 season, and Marcus Foligno, who played 60 games for Rochester last season. On Saturday, the Philadelphia Flyers assigned 26 players, including Erik Gustafsson, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, to the Adirondack Phantoms.
“At least I know my season’s going to start,” Gustafsson said.
Among the young NHL standouts that could give the A a jolt are Carolina’s Jeff Skinner, the 2011 NHL rookie of the year; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the first pick of the 2011 Draft by Edmonton; and New Jersey’s Adam Henrique, who clinched the Devils’ Eastern Conference title in June with an overtime goal against the New York Rangers in Game 6.
Ottawa’s Jason Spezza set the standard during the last lockout. Spezza, a Senators forward, played 80 games for Ottawa’s AHL franchise in Binghamton, N.Y. and had 32 goals and 85 assists.
“We’ve always been the second-best league in the world,” said Dolgon, who switched NHL affiliations from Anaheim to Tampa Bay after last season and has seen a bump in fan interest. “Now, we can be the second-best league with even greater talent playing in that league.”
If the lockout goes beyond the start of the AHL season, Dolgon said he expects attendance will be up across the board.
“I don’t know that we’re seeing NHL fans flocking to our ticket windows, but I do believe that our current fan base is more excited, and I think that’ll ultimately lead to more ticket sales,” said John Bitter, in his ninth year as ticket manager of the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. “Hopefully, we’ll start to get newer fans on account of it. Our hardcore hockey fans are excited about this. I think they’d rather see the NHL play, but they’re not going to turn down the guys coming back, that’s for sure.”
The public perception is that there seems to be a pretty wide gap between the union and the owners, which could mean another prolonged stoppage as the search for a new CBA continues.
“Obviously, the question is: How long will the labor stoppage continue,” Andrews asked. “There’s still a month to go before the season is scheduled to open. So, it’s difficult to say how it’s going to play out.
“We’re certainly looking at it as an opportunity again for our league to benefit over the short term, and at the same time recognize that our sport is better off with the NHL playing. The NHL is the engine that drives our business. For us, any kind of short-term financial windfalls or brand exposure windfalls are just that – short-term.
“We’d be just as happy if it all gets resolved and the NHL begins the season on time.”
He’s not alone.