Commentary

AHL cautious about lockout boost

Updated: September 19, 2012, 9:39 AM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

The American Hockey League is ready to step right up if called upon this fall, as the NHL lockout is a mixed blessing but still a valuable one for North America's No. 2 pro hockey circuit.

Mixed because, while the chance to own the stage while the big show is in a labor impasse has historically been a boost to the AHL, there's also the reality that the two leagues are solid partners.

It's a delicate balance for AHL president David Andrews, who can't be seen as licking his chops given his long-term need of NHL developmental talent in his league.

"First of all, you don't know how great this window of opportunity is likely to be, if it is at all," Andrews told ESPN.com Monday in a phone interview from his AHL office in Springfield, Mass. "We're still three or four weeks from the opening of our season, the opening of the NHL season, if it were to happen. But I've been through two of these before, and in 1994 and in 2004-05, those periods of time when the NHL wasn't playing were tremendous opportunities for us to grow the brand and to create greater awareness of how good our league is. The media coverage and the opportunity for live television, and the attention of the hockey world in North America at least being on us, and having some players in our league that we might not normally have, those are all positives and they added up to more revenue for us, far greater exposure and the best attendance that we ever had. So it's hard to make that sound like bad news. It isn't. It's a really good windfall opportunity for us when it happens."

Attendance rose 6.5 percent from 2003-04 to the 2004-05 NHL lockout season for the AHL; both the average and overall attendance figures are still the highest ever. It helped that the Oilers put their AHL affiliate in Edmonton for the season and, of course, it helped that a handful of games were moved to NHL arenas (Nashville, L.A., Buffalo, San Jose, Anaheim, Toronto, Tampa, Philly, Columbus, Ottawa, Long Island and Minnesota).

This time around, much of the same can be expected if an NHL lockout drags into the fall and winter, plus with social media and new media platforms, who knows how much more the AHL can gain.

[+] EnlargeEric Staal
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images"To a man, they would say it was a great experience for them and that their careers were enhanced by [playing in the AHL]," AHL president David Andrews said of players like Eric Staal, above.

Having said all that, you just knew there was a "but" coming.

"At the same time, not just in being good partners with the NHL and with NHL players, but the engine that drives our business is the NHL," Andrews said. "And while we might see a short-term gain for a month or two months or whatever the period of time is, ultimately we all get floated by the success of the National Hockey League. I can honestly say that I haven't been sitting here, nor have our owners sitting and wringing our hands saying, 'Boy, I hope we get this opportunity.' If it's there, it's there, and you need to be prepared for it and take advantage of it. But at the same time, it's not the normal state of life for our business and it will eventually go back to normal."

In the meantime, the AHL has seen young NHL talent assigned to its league for as long as the lockout lasts, the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jeff Skinner, Adam Henrique, Alex Burmistrov, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Jordan Eberle, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Cody Hodgson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Ryan Johansen. Brett Connolly and Adam Larsson.

Last time around, the AHL benefited from having young, promising stars such as Eric Staal, Jason Spezza, Dustin Brown, Mike Cammalleri and Patrice Bergeron in its league in 2004-05.

"To a man, they would say it was a great experience for them and that their careers were enhanced by having a chance to play really meaningful minutes, getting the opportunity at their age to be a leader on their team was really important for those guys," Andrews said.

Players such as Spezza and Staal were still hungry to prove themselves as pros last time around. The question now with this year's crop is whether some of the NHL youngsters will feel a little deflated about being in the AHL and how they'll respond. Take Skinner for example. He's already proved himself a top-level offensive threat in the NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes. How motivated will he be to play in the AHL?

In the meantime, the impact of these added-on NHL youngsters is obvious on AHL rosters. A few players who would have otherwise made the AHL will be knocked down the food chain to ECHL rosters.

"Some players may end up in the ECHL that normally would be in the American League," said Andrews, although he minimized the real impact. "Whether that's one or two players per team, that's probably how significant the impact will be to start with."

Andrews said the AHL has also opened the door for a certain group of locked-out NHL players who fit a specific criteria: players who must have either been on AHL rosters at the trade deadline last year or have finished the season in the AHL.

"Whether any player which fits this criteria elects to sign an AHL contract during the lockout, we'll see," said Andrews. "But we did that to create a mechanism by which players who in our view legitimately belong in the American League and were in the American League wouldn't get caught in the lockout. We did that acting in our own best interests."

What the AHL will not do, and didn't last time either, is completely open the floodgates and allow just any locked-out NHLer to play in its league.

"I don't think you want to put your league in a position where there's virtually no competitive integrity, because as soon as the NHL comes back, all those [NHL] players go back," Andrews said.

"It's a delicate balance you have to strike and act in the right way for your league. Which is what you're required to do. Because we're a neutral part in all this. If you open the floodgates completely, then you have a number of guys that are normally in your league out of work."

After all, the AHL is about developing NHL players. Not employing NHL stars.

"We have a mission that has worked for us, and we have to be mindful of that," Andrews said.