AHL provides sporting opportunity for NHL-starved fans
By Mike Dodd, USA TODAY
CHICAGO — In the middle of hockey's nuclear winter, there is a pulse in one of the NHL's Original Six cities. A jersey-wearing, noise-making, sign-waving pulse.
J.P. Vigier is with the Chicago Wolves, one of 28 American Hockey League teams. Each has an NHL franchise affiliation.
About 15 miles northwest of the iceless United Center, home of the Chicago Blackhawks, the American Hockey League Wolves are not just surviving. They're thriving.
A total of about 28,500 fans attended two games in the Allstate Arena last weekend (more than the Blackhawks averaged last season), including a near sellout of 15,623 Sunday. The Wolves' season average is 8,573 — up about 23% from last year.
"I'd rather be seeing an NHL game, but what can you do?" Russ Clancy of suburban Mundelein, Ill. said between periods of a Wolves-Syracuse game last week.
His alternative is shared by thousands of fans in hockey's top minor league. The AHL, with 11 teams located within an hour's drive of an NHL city, is recording a 9% increase in attendance leaguewide, with NHL territories among the leaders.
The Hamilton (Ontario) Bulldogs, halfway between Toronto and Buffalo, are drawing 27% more. Edmonton, in its first AHL season, is running neck-and-neck with Manchester, N.H., for the league lead, with an 8,883 average. Philadelphia, which drew 25,400 for two games last weekend, is up 11%.
The AHL franchises are conflicted by the NHL's labor shutdown. It's good for business in the short term but terrible for hockey in general. "We want the NHL back, believe me," says Don Levin, Wolves chairman of the board. "That's where we get our players. That's our lifeblood."
The Wolves, an Atlanta Thrashers affiliate, have always marketed themselves aggressively and have benefited in recent years from fans' anger with Blackhawks ownership for letting several popular players leave. While not playing into anti-NHL sentiment created by the lockout, they are aiming for its fans.
"We're saying, 'There's hockey in Chicago.' It's important for people to know there's a hockey team here," Levin says. "I'm not putting my head in the sand. We're sorry the NHL is not playing. ... But if they're not playing, we're the hockey team in town."
After the NHL season was canceled Feb. 16, the Wolves opened next year's season-ticket drive with the slogan, "Still need a reason? We guarantee another season." The pitch: Put down a season ticket deposit (as little as $12 initially). If the NHL season starts on schedule and you want to cancel, you're guaranteed a full refund.
"We know people are not sure. We want to make it an easy decision for them," says Adam Fox, Wolves executive vice president of business operations.
He says the club received more than 100 new deposits for season tickets in the first week. The team used the same program successfully coming into this season.
The promotion-friendly AHL also is enjoying improved quality of play, observers say, because every team has three or four players who would have spent most, if not all, of the season in the NHL.
"I think that's bringing everyone's level of play up. It seems to make the whole league better," says Thrashers/Wolves forward J.P. Vigier.
"It's good, competitive hockey," adds former Colorado Avalanche winger Brad Larsen. "You're not getting marquee players. But you're getting guys at the next level who maybe don't score a lot (in the NHL), but at this level can produce a little more."
Observers are split on whether this season will have a carryover effect after the NHL returns. Levin thinks the huge attendance increases are a one-year aberration. But officials also believe NHL fans might take a liking to the lower-priced, family-oriented atmosphere and come back.
But until the NHL returns, this is an AHL city. You have to look hard to find an NHL jersey in the Wolves crowd. And even then, make no assumptions.
John Kidd of Streamwood, Ill., wore an Islanders jersey the other night, but there's no attachment to Michael Peca and friends. "It's Chris Ferraro's," he says. "He used to play for the Wolves."
Thrashers general manager Don Waddell was named GM of the U.S. team that will play at the April 30-May 15 world championships in Austria.
He was assistant GM of last year's team, which won a medal (bronze) for the first time since 1996.