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How to get your hockey fix: AHL, ECHL, U.S. juniors

The puck drops for the AHL's 77th regular season Oct. 12, with each of the 30 teams -- all affiliated with NHL clubs -- playing 76 games until April 21. (At least six NHL arenas in Montreal, St. Paul, Minn., Washington D.C., Toronto, Raleigh, N.C., and Philadelphia will host AHL matches this season.) Only four AHL teams (St. John's Ice Caps, Abbotsford Heat, Hamilton Bulldogs and Toronto Marlies) are Canadian-based; the others are in the U.S. Eight from each conference qualify for the postseason tournament and play for the Calder Cup, named in honor of the NHL's first president. Fun fact: The league's expansion and absorption of six IHL teams in 2001 left it with a pair of clubs, in Norfolk and Milwaukee, that call themselves the Admirals.

More than 88 percent of current NHLers, and more than 100 Hockey Hall of Famers, have spent time in the AHL, which has has also been a proving ground for coaches such as Dan Bylsma (Pittsburgh Penguins), Guy Boucher (Tampa Bay Lightning), Glen Gulutzan (Dallas Stars) and Bruce Boudreau (Anaheim Ducks). Syracuse's Jon Cooper is considered a rising star in the current AHL coaching ranks.

• Syracuse Crunch: The Tampa Bay Lightning have switched their affiliation to Syracuse, taking most of the Norfolk Admirals, who won the Calder Cup last season, along. The Admirals, who led the AHL with 113 points in the standings, scored a whopping 273 goals, while allowing just 180. Their 55-18-1-2 mark included a 28-game win streak that set a North American pro hockey record. They also swept St. John's and Toronto in the final two rounds of the playoffs. (Norfolk, which is now an Anaheim Ducks affiliate, will not be blessed with such firepower.)

• Toronto Marlies: The minor-league arm of the Maple Leafs won the Western Conference's Northern Division last season and reached the Calder Cup Final before falling to Norfolk. Coached by NHL journeyman Dallas Eakins, the Marlies led the league in penalty killing for the second season in a row. Look for forward Joe Colborne, a fast starter last season, to have a bounce-back campaign after offseason wrist surgery.

• Oklahoma City Barons: With all the rebuilding that the Edmonton Oilers are doing, real NHL star power should be on this team at least for the early part of the schedule. The Barons -- not to be confused with those short-lived NHL boys from Cleveland (remember them?) -- topped the Western Conference with 99 points last season. Oiler forwards Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Magnus Paajarv are now on board. If Taylor Hall (shoulder rehab) joins as planned, the Barons would be even stronger.

HACKEL:Barons may be North America's best team

• G Braden Holtby, Hershey Bears: When he earned a chance to play a little goal for Washington last spring due to injuries suffered by Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth, nobody expected the rookie to lead the Capitals past the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round and give the New York Rangers a seven-game battle in the second. The 23-year old has a 14-4 mark in 21 regular-season games over two NHL seasons, but after notching a 2.61 GAA in 40 games with Hershey in 2011-12, he lowered that total to 1.95 in 14 NHL playoff games. Holtyby's cool under fire is already impressive. Regular work with Hershey could help him build some stamina for the long haul.

• RW Jordan Eberle, Oklahoma City Barons: After a superb showing in his second season with the Oilers (34-42-76), the 22-year-old right wing could tear up the AHL if he spends enough time there. Consider that in 2009-10, while splitting time between the AHL's Springfield Falcons and the WHL's Regina Pats, Eberle amassed 56 goals and 120 points. Like the financially troubled Coyotes, the Oilers may ultimately be playing for their future this season, so a good showing by their kids could help earn the team the new arena it may need to stay in Alberta.

• C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oklahoma City Barons: Though shoulder injuries kept the Oiler rookie from playing a full season and perhaps winning the Calder Trophy, the NHL's first overall pick of 2011 can certainly use the extra seasoning. After picking up 52 points in 62 games during his debut campaign, it wouldn't hurt to put some more meat on his 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame in order to better endure the rigors of NHL life.

• D Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Portland Pirates: The 21-year-old Swede has already proven his durability by playing in all 82 games with the Coyotes and scoring 13 goals while earning ample power-play time last season. Now he needs to figure out what sort of player he can be. Ekman-Larsson grew into a more physical player during the 2009-10 season in Sweden, amassing 118 penalty minutes in just 58 games with both Leskands and the country's junior national team. He's been far less physical with Phoenix, totaling 56 in 130 games. This stint in the A could coax him to become a more forceful presence on the backline.

• LW Chris Kreider, Connecticut Whale: Though he's never played a regular-season game in the NHL, the Boston College standout impressed even hard-to-wow coach John Tortorella with his speed after joining the Rangers for their three rounds of playoffs last spring and scoring five goals. At 6-3, 225 pounds, Kreider is also difficult to knock off the puck and has gifts that most forwards dream about. A stint in Hartford could help get his defense up to par with his scoring prowess.

• C Sean Couturier, Adirondack Phantoms: Though the rookie scored just 27 points in 77 games with Philadelphia last season, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette gave him extended minutes during the playoffs when he appeared to mature and thrive. Couturier's emergence as a two-way player also allowed the team to trade James Van Riemsdyk to Toronto. In his first exhibition game against Albany, he recorded two assists on the power play, after averaging just 26 seconds of man advantage time per game for the Flyers last season. More of that and Laviolette may allow him to expand his role once the NHL season starts.

• LW Cory Conacher, Syracuse Crunch: The Tampa Bay Lightning already have Martin St. Louis, and now comes another pint-sized (5-8) stud in their system. The AHL MVP had a brilliant season as a rookie (39-41-80) and picked up 114 penalty minutes for the league's best team. His performance is all the more remarkable because he suffers from Type I diabetes and wears an insulin pump when he isn't playing.

CAZENEUVE:Devils' Henrique making most of AHL

• American Hockey League: The AHL's official site has schedules, stats, archives and live games (for a fee). The site offers packages to watch AHL games online, with options for all-access, individual team passes, away games only, or individual packs of 10 games, five or one.

Fans in Canada can watch games on Sportsnet, which will begin its coverage with three Saturday matches this month.

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• Dec. 30: Grand Rapids Griffins vs. Toronto Marlies outdoors at Comerica Park in Detroit.

• Jan. 4: The AHL champion Admirals host the Crunch for the first time since the Norfolk staff moved to Syracuse after the season because the Lightning switched its affiliation.

• Jan. 27-28: AHL All-Star festivities are in Providence, R.I., home of Boston's AHL affiliate.

• Jan. 20: Hershey Bears vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins outdoors at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa.

• March 23: You'll have plenty of AHL hockey to choose from as all 30 teams will be in action. The full schedule will be repeated April 19 and 20 as well.

Established in 1988, it includes 23 teams in the U.S. and is considered a level below the AHL. Any player designated for assignment by an NHL club must be sent to the AHL or ECHL. Nearly 500 have graduated from ECHL teams to play in the NHL at some point.

The league's original name -- East Coast Hockey League -- was a misnomer, as clubs are located as far west as San Francisco, Las Vegas and Anchorage. All but three -- Las Vegas Wranglers, Bakersfield (Calif.) Condors and Alaska Aces -- have affiliations with specific NHL clubs, and five share ties to two NHL teams. Four (San Francisco Bulls, Orlando Solar Bears, Evansville IceMen and Fort Wayne Komets) are new this season, and the Columbia Inferno is under suspension as it attempts to find a new arena. The ECHL has only ever had one Canadian club, the Victoria Salmon Kings, who folded after the 2011 season. Fans of the cult movie Slap Shot will note that the actual Johnstown Chiefs played in the ECHL before relocating to Greenville, S.C. after the 2010 season. The Chiefs never won a title. (The ECHL champ receives the Kelly Cup.)

• Alaska Aces: In addition to NHLer Brandon Dubinsky, the league's top regular season offensive team of 2011-12 also signed fellow Alaska natives Nate Thompson, the Tampa Bay Lightning center, and Washington Capitals right wing Joey Crabb. Scott Gomez, who skated with the team for a few days, was released in the final roster cut because he didn't intend to play for the team.

• Florida Everblades: The defending champions welcomed back four key skaters from last season's squad: forwards David Rutherford and Matt Beca and defensemen Bobby Raymond and Joe Sova. Rutherford led the team with 25 goals and Beca topped it with 60 points. Raymond, 27, was a steady presence on the backline. Goalie Rob Madore spent most of 2011-12 with the University of Vermont, but posted a 54-save, quadruple-overtime win for the South Carolina Stingrays against Gwinnett in the playoffs last spring.

• Las Vegas Wranglers: The Western Conference champs, who lost to Florida in last season's five-game final, actually feature a pair of Las Vegas natives. Center Chris Francis posted a total of 45 points in the regular season and playoffs. Bryce Reddick, a 23-year-old forward who grew up in the area, is the son of former NHL goalie Pokey Reddick who played for Winnipeg, Edmonton and Florida before joining Las Vegas in the now-defunct International Hockey League.

HACKEL:NHLers may be targets in ECHL

• Colorado Eagles: Skating with ECHL MVP Chad Costello will be Jack Combs, who was second in the league in scoring before being called up to the AHL. Trent Daavettila, who notched 74 points in 68 games with Kalamazoo last season, rounds out one of the league's best lines.

• C Brandon Dubinsky, Alaska Aces: Like Gomez, Dubinsky has something to prove once he returns to the NHL, which makes his stint in the ECHL a potential momentum swinger. He spent six seasons in New York, but never truly developed into the power forward the Rangers had hoped for. After a 24-goal, 54-point season in 2010-11, he seemed to lose his nose for the net last season and found himself with less ice time and just 34 points. The Rangers might have moved him at the trade deadline last season, but his contract seemed a little heftier than his worth to some teams. New York finally dealt him to Columbus as a key piece of the deal for Rick Nash. Dubinsky's fresh start will begin with the Aces.

• D Paul Mara, Ontario Reign: This 13-year, 33-year-old veteran of the NHL wars has 734 games on his resume with the big show. He'll be skating for the defending Pacific Division champions, an affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings. Mara spent the 2011-12 campaign coaching the Bourne, Mass., high school team, but never actually retired from hockey.

• F Chad Costello, Colorado Eagles: He finished fourth in the league in scoring (29-47-76 in 47 games) despite suffering a season-ending knee injury (torn ACL) Mar. 10 while carrying the puck around the net against Alaska. He was selected, nevertheless, as the ECHL's MVP.

• America One Sports: America One offers coverage of all ECHL games, including video on demand for 30 days. There are no dedicated TV announcers, and broadcasts are actually the transmitted radio feeds of the team you choose in that particular game. The website also has links for audio-only broadcasts.

• ECHL Headline News: The site has the usual game center, with stats, standings and ticket information. It also keeps track of how many ECHL alumni reach the NHL. The number stands at 490 entering the 2012-13 season.

• Nov. 7, 9, 10: Consider this series more than a date. Three nights are a necessity, given the travel requirements of a team from Alaska. The Aces will play three games in four nights in Las Vegas against the Wranglers. The back-to-back Friday and Saturday night tilts could carry playoff intensity as two of the strongest teams in the West lock horns.

• Feb. 22, 23, 24: Since what happens in Vegas doesn't have to stay in Vegas, look for this three-game series between the Wranglers and Aces in Anchorage on three consecutive nights. February in Alaska? Might as well stay inside and watch some hockey.

The top junior league in the U.S. has 16 teams located throughout the Midwest and is classified as Tier I. Since it is an amateur league, players are eligible to play at the NCAA level. Most games take place on the weekends and players live with local families. The league has had precursors: the American Amateur Hockey League, the Central Hockey League and the Minnesota Hockey League. Clubs skate for the Clark Cup. Notable Alumni include Phil Housley, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Sharp, Gary Suter and Thomas Vanek. To date, 192 USHL players have advanced to the NHL.

• Green Bay Gamblers: Returning head coach and GM Derek Lalonde led the team to a 47-9-4 mark during the regular season, marking the most wins ever recorded in the USHL by a rookie coach. The Gamblers scored an astounding 250 goals last season, while surrendering just 138, and they set a league record with 98 points. The club has reached the finals for three straight seasons, winning twice, and still has a number of dangerous forwards returning, though uncertainty in goal could be a stumbling point.

• Waterloo Black Hawks: They lost to the Gamblers, three games to two, in the league finals last season, but own the most titles, nine, in league history. The decision to play a preseason tournament in Russia should have them in playing shape for the early part of the season. Ryan Papa, Taylor Cammarata and Vince Hinostroza form a formidable top line.

• Youngstown Phantoms: They are already off to a fast start, scoring 23 goals in their first four games. Considering that this was supposed to be a physical team with good shot blockers and determined defense, the Phantoms may be better than people expect, as Austin Cangelosi and J. T. Stenglein are the early season scoring leaders.

• F Austin Cangelosi, Youngstown Phantoms: After his first four games this season, the 5-7 forward has already amassed 10 points and has a plus-10 rating. The Phantoms' co-captain notched 29 goals and 59 points in 53 games last season and led the league in shorthanded goals with eight. Cangelosi is a playmaking center with a world of speed. The 18-year-old Estero, Fla., native is committed to play for Boston College. His brother JC plays for Connecticut College.

• F J. T. Stenglein, Youngstown Phantoms: The power forward from Greece (that's Greece, N.Y.) picked up a franchise record 31 goals, including nine on the power play, and 132 penalty minutes last season and recorded a four-goal game in a 9-6 win against Waterloo on Oct. 5. At 6-foot, 195 pounds, he's big enough to assume the role of power forward at the USHL level. The Buffalo Sabres liked him enough to invited him to their prospects games in advance of the 2012 NHL Draft.

• F Taylor Cammarata, Waterloo Black Hawks: The USHL rookie of the year is back after a campaign in which he posted 69 points in 60 games during the regular season and 16 points in 15 games during the playoffs. The Plymouth, Minn., native is headed to the University of Minnesota, where, at 5-7 and 156 pounds, he will be an impish forward, even by college standards. But there is no doubting his hands and skill.

The concept was launched by USA Hockey in 1996 in order to prepare players for participation on U.S. national teams. (The U.S. National Junior Team will be looking to get back its medal-winning ways at the World Junior Championships Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Ufa, Russia. It won gold in 2010 and bronze in 2011.) The USNTDP, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., is divided into an under-18 team and an under-17 squad. The U-17s compete in the USHL and play in three international tournaments. U-18s play some games against NCAA Division-I and Division-III foes.

The U.S. has won gold medals at the U-18 world championships seven times since 2002, including each of the last four years. NTDP programs provided most of the players for those teams. Sixty NTDP alumni have played in the NHL, including Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Ryan Suter, Keith Ballard, Erik Johnson, Matt Carle, Jimmy Howard and Rick DiPietro.

• USA Hockey, USHL: Find user-friendly guides for players and parents, as well as just fans. There's a section entitled "What parents want to know" and a series of frequently asked questions, including: "Where will I live?" "Where will I go to School?" "Do I get free gear?"

• Hockey Webcasts: The website has links to the live audio feeds provided by nine of the league's teams. On the same site, eight teams have links to video highlights after games are completed, though picture quality varies.

• Nov. 6-12, U-18 Four Nations Tournment: The U.S. will be going for its fifth straight title, taking on Sweden, Finland and Switzerland in Ann Arbor, Mich.

• Dec. 29-Jan. 4, World U-17 Hockey Challenge: Russia tries to defend its championship in a 27-game tournament held in Victoriaville and Drummondville, Quebec.

• April 18-28, World U-18 Championship in Sochi, Russia: Defending champion Team USA is in Group A with Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic, and Latvia. Group B includes Canada, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia.

The NAHL is the only Tier II junior league sanctioned by USA Hockey. Originating in 1975, it's the oldest such league in the country, though it remains a step below the USHL. The NAHL ballooned in 2003 when it absorbed teams from the defunct America West Hockey League. With the addition this season of the Soo Eagles from Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, the NAHL will now consist of 24 teams spread over five divisions playing a 58-game season.

• Texas Tornado: Not surprisingly, they got off to an 8-0-0 start. Last season, they won their fifth Robertson Cup, with an OT win against the St. Louis Bandits. It marked the team's first playoff series victory since 2006, when it won its third straight Cup. Despite being just a Tier II team, the Tornado has been successful in ultimately graduating goaltenders to the NHL ranks, including Al Montoya, Ben Bishop and Dave McKee. This year, Hunter Leisner and Jerry Kaukinen should split the duties, with Leisner getting the bulk of the work after a 10-5-2 season. He started 6-0.

• Fairbanks Ice Dogs: The 2011 Robertson Cup champs play in a 2,200-seat arena, but the crowd in the Big Dipper is known to be colorful and raucous. The Ice Dogs finished first in the West last season with an impressive 39-13-8 mark. Look for forwards Devin Loe and Kyle Lee, and defenseman Doug Rose to be among the stalwarts. And you know the team is good with money because the GM is named Rob Profitt.

• Wenatchee Wild: The chief rival of the Ice Dogs. Forward Jono Davis started off with 11 goals and 19 points in his first 11 games this season. Just one player on the roster had a minus rating. Robert Nichols and Evan McCarthy are two dependable goalies who should split their time in net for most of the season.

• FastHockey: Live games and archives on demand.

There are 12 active Tier III leagues in the U.S.: The Atlantic Junior Hockey League, American West Hockey League, Eastern Junior Hockey League, North American 3 Hockey League, Minnesota Junior Hockey League, Northern Pacific Hockey League, Western States Hockey League, Eastern States Hockey League, Empire Junior Hockey League, Great Lakes Junior Hockey League, Metropolitan Junior Hockey League and Southeast Junior Hockey League.

At the inaugural USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo Sept. 29, forward Ryan Fitzgerald, son of former NHL-er Tom Fitzgerald, recorded three assists in earning MVP honors. Fitzgerald plays for the Valley Warriors of the Eastern Junior Hockey League.