By Stu Hackel
It's time for Plan B.
Like many of you, I had planned to watch opening night of the NHL season, probably switching between the Senators-Canadiens game and the Bruins-Flyers tilt in the early evening and doing the same for the two late contests, the Canucks taking on the Flames in Calgary and the Blues battling the Avalanche in Colorado.
Thanks to the ongoing lockout, we won't be doing that. So the search for hockey -- in person, on video screens and computer monitors, on this continent or elsewhere -- is on.
To say that there's a lot of very good, entertaining hockey out there is an understatement; there's a ton -- or a tonne if you're in Canada. (SI.com's Allan Muir offers his guide to the CHL, which includes Canada's three major junior circuits, where many top prospects are playing.) No, it's not the very best, not what the NHL can offer, but it's not far from it in some cases. And in others, it is equally entertaining; some take it to be even more so if, for example, you really like watching young players who are hellbent on giving their all to take the next step in their careers, or you have an emotional investment in a certain club or program, or you just find that the NHL has become too (those of you who have become disaffected can take your pick here) defensively-oriented, predictable, violent, expensive, exploitative or all of the above.
Regardless, the best way to get through the lockout, and even enjoy it, is to pick a team to follow and become a loyalist. You can stick close to your favorite NHL organization by becoming a fan of their farm club. That's easiest for Maple Leafs fans with the American Hockey League Marlies in the same town, and San Jose Sharks fans whose brand new ECHL affiliate, the Bulls, debut at the Cow Palace in nearby San Francisco. It's much more challenging for Kings fans who must cast a cross-continent eye at Manchester, New Hampshire's AHL Monarchs or Wild fans who will have to look way south to Houston and the Aeros. (SI.com's Brian Cazeneuve has a guide to minor league and junior hockey in the U.S.)
You might want to get a different view of hockey altogether if there's a minor pro or amateur outfit in your area. Dallas Stars fans can check out the NAHL junior champion Texas Tornado in suburban Frisco; Bruins fans can scout the many college programs in the Boston area. (SI.com's Sarah Kwak has some NCAA teams and players to follow this season.)
Or you might want to follow a European team because your favorite player is skating there, or perhaps randomly select a squad just because you like the team's name or the uniform. (SI.com's Gabriel Baumgaertner surveyed the overseas landscape.)
And maybe you just want to head over to the rink and watch the local kids team or a group of beer leaguers.
It doesn't much matter what the reason is. Having a rooting interest in a club you adopt will make the season matter for you.
But here's the thing: If you're primarily an NHL fan, it's going to take a little extra work on your part. It will require you to establish new habits. You may have to travel some or struggle through the challenges of finding live game video. You'll read stories about the team and players in unfamiliar newspapers and websites and visit new blogs, but you may encounter a language other than English that you must transcend to learn more about the team and its games. Don't let any of that dissuade you. Any hockey sojourn away from the NHL has its own rewards, as I've found out.
Back in the days of the Original Six, long before there was an internet, my favorite player, Gump Worsley, was dispatched to the Quebec Aces of the AHL by the Canadiens. Living in New York, I wasn't going to get any news about that team or that league. We barely got news about the Rangers. But thanks to radio, I could listen to AHL games from Baltimore and keep tabs on the Aces and, in the process, I learned all about the AHL. The Gumper eventually returned to Montreal to win Stanley Cups but I continued tracking the AHL. When the NHL expanded to 12 teams a few years later, most of the AHLers who got new jobs were a mystery to others, but not to me.
And, during the lockout of 2004-05, I worked as communications director for the North American Hockey League ("the oldest and largest junior league in the United States," I told anyone who asked) and that gave me a new appreciation for the entire developmental process of hockey in this country and the advanced skill level of the young NAHL players. Junior hockey in both the U.S. and Canada is the high energy spectacle that future pros and collegians come from. It's fun trying to pick out the players you think might go far in the game.
When it comes to minor pro hockey, listen to my friend Marc Nathan, a huge LA Kings fan who is not against jumping on a plane to another city to see a single NHL game or taking a road trip to see six minor league games in seven nights.
Marc told me on the phone this week, "I love the American League. I think it's a pretty good brand of hockey, although it's decidedly a step below the NHL. But I love a good $12 ticket. I love the intimate arena. I love that it's not as much an amusement park as the NHL is; they try to do that but they don't have the $5 million exploding scoreboards and all that stuff. It's nice when you go to an arena in Worcester or Portland or Manchester and the arena is scaled down and it's without the pretense of, say, Staples Center. The fans at Kings games are raucous, but you don't know how much of that is piped-in applause. Sure, they're into it, but so there are so many people talking on their cell phones or texting.
"At a minor league game, they're really into their hockey, and the guys who are scratches are usually sitting in seats in a section watching the game, not sequestered in a press box. It's just a nicer atmosphere."
The ECHL has many of the same charms. I've enjoyed the ECHL games I've seen, but Nathan is a bit cooler on that league. "In the NHL, the puck is never far from a player's stick. In the AHL, the puck is rarely far from a player's stick. In the ECHL, the puck is always far from a player's stick. It's bizarre. You see the puck sitting in open ice for about four seconds and it feels like a lifetime." So if you're an NHL fan sampling the ECHL for the first time, you may have to adjust your expectations.
Here's a list of AHL clubs and their NHL parent clubs and a similar list of ECHL affiliates. For NHL fans, following the AHL may be the most natural thing to do. "If I were a fan of a team, I'd be looking at the American League," says NBC's Pierre McGuire. "Pittsburgh is going to have tremendous depth on defense and I'd be watching that from Wilkes-Barre. They're going to have a fun team to watch. The Oklahoma City Barons should be unbelievable with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall; they're going to be fun. And watching Justin Schultz will be interesting, to see how he plays at that level. I think that league is going to be awesome, the best they've been since the last lockout. They had Eric Staal, Jason Spezza, Matthew Lombardi. They were great. The American League back then, a lot of guys came out of that league improved players when they rejoined their NHL teams."
Many top young NHL players whose contracts allow it have been assigned to the AHL for the duration of the lockout and you can watch all games via the league’s AHL Live video on demand feature. There are different packages available at different price points. It's another area in which NHL fans have to adjust their expectations.
"It's expensive," says Patricia Teter, who lives in Oklahoma City and blogs about the Barons. "They're not necessarily high quality cameras in each arena, and each arena is slightly different. You get very low quality is some, very good quality in others. It's based on the age of the arena, the wiring coming into the arena, the network connections, all of that. All the Chicago Wolves games will be televised and they'll probably take those signals and put them on the AHL package and the quality of that video will be better. But overall, if you're used to the NHL's Game Center Live, the quality is low and Game Center Live is half the price."
Of course, there is no Game Center Live right now. "I recommend people buy a team package and watch a team," Teter says. "The AHL package is not unwatchable and if you want to watch hockey, that's the way to do it. I purchased road games of our team in Oklahoma City last season and some were better than others, but they all were worth watching."
Crossing the ocean, the European leagues have the most world class talent and that alone is a good reason to watch them. Jeff Z. Klein in The New York Times put together this rough guide to those leagues last month.
You'll find lots of differences, but also lots of similarities compared to North American hockey. Press coverage is pretty extensive and just as sharp as in North America: For example, a current readers' poll on Allhockey.ru asks "What is the fate of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov with CSKA?" and the options are 1) All will be well; 2) Everything will be the same. He will not be the first choice goalkeeper; 3) All of it will be bad, like Nabokov at SKA. First, sit down. Then leave; 4) I do not know. Just surprised at how bad Bryzgalov is now; 5) I do not understand why we need Bryzgalov at CSKA; and 6) I do not understand how you can even call Bryzgalov a goaltender.
Because of all the locked out elite players over there, McGuire -- who has had experience as a player, coach, and broadcaster on both continents and at all levels of the game -- is paying special attention to Europe now. "I study the Swiss League stats; I care what's going on with Nash, with Horton, with Spezza, the impact NHL players I'm paying attention to.
"The Swiss League attracted a lot of North American NHLers because it's an easier experience for them," he says. "They pay well, it's a weekend league so you don't have to kill yourself flying all over; it's a small country.
"It's been harder for North Americans to get into the KHL because there's just not as many jobs. Most of the best paying jobs have gone to Russian players who have stayed there. The Swedish League started the lockout saying NHLers had to commit for the full season but now, it's debatable whether that's still in effect; it looks like Henrik Lundqvist may end up in Frolunda. Erik Karlsson went to Finland because Frolunda didn't have the money to pay him."
If you're going to follow a team in Europe, the biggest obstacle, of course, is language. There's generally plenty of coverage of the Euro leagues in the respective newspapers and sports websites of those countries, and the KHL website has an English language option. Google Translate will become your friend -- to a point because anyone who has used it knows the translations it provides are rough and can sometimes produce tortured syntax and even gibberish, especially when hockey terms are involved. But the more you use it, the more you figure things out.
It's in the area of live game video that things get most murky -- at least for me. Aside from the handful of games for which ESPN3 will provide English commentary, a number of websites claim to offer streaming video of Euro games, including Firstrow, Laola1, Justin TV, Ustream, Freedocast, Veetle, Vipbox, Oleotv. I tried a couple and was prompted to download all sorts of things, including unwanted add-ons to browsers and such, that I prefer not to have on my computer, so I aborted the launch and haven't used any of them. (I admit becoming something of a Luddite after some harmful, costly misadventures in downloading.) Some people swear that these work, although I'm told the picture isn't always great and it pixilates on occasion. I can't and won't vouch for any of these sites, so downloader, beware! You try them at your own risk.
So now's the time to explore and celebrate the game at any and every level and, as long as the NHL is locked down, we'll do our best to help guide the way. We've already started writing more about European hockey and minor pro. When NBC Sports Network starts televising NCAA games, we'll try giving you a preview. There's the World Junior Tournament (Dec. 26 to Jan.5), which is among the real hockey highlights of the year but not followed as closely in the U.S. as it has been in Canada, where it's annually a holiday season tradition. If the NHL doesn't return, we'll keep at it through the IIHF Mens' World Championships, the CHL's Memorial Cup, the AHL Calder Cup finals and whatever else happens on the ice that's worth discussing as we go through Plan B.
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