Just another day at Allstate Arena with the Chicago Wolves

You’ll never catch me writing a “bucket list,” because that would force me to contemplate my own mortality. Yikes. No thanks.

However, if I did have a bucket list, it would have “Epic Hockey Road Trip” on it, pretty high up. And it would have a check next to it because, dude…  I just did that.

Okay, to call it “epic” might be a stretch, but my hockey road trip was a pretty good go at it for someone with a full-time job that doesn’t involve being a hockey scout or beat writer.

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For 9 days, Mr. Conduct and I traveled to games all around the Rust Belt, starting and ending in Cleveland, and saw a hockey game every night*.

*Except for Monday. Stupid worthless Monday where there wasn’t even any hockey on TV – IN CANADA! – and no free wi-fi at the hotel to access my SlingBox. So, we watched the Hamilton Kiwanis Club TV Bingo instead. Riveting stuff. Congrats to Paul, Betsy, and Suzanne on your wins!

Eight games, across the NHL, AHL, and OHL, in barns as new as Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh to the 60 year old War Memorial Arena in Syracuse. We covered 1,853 miles in those 9 days and crossed the border 5 times in 4 different places. (I’m pretty sure someone wearing dark sun glasses and an earpiece is holding a list with our names on it.)

So, without further ado, join me for part one of a HoweverLongICanMilkThis-part series looking back at my Somewhat Epic Hockey Road Trip:

Why the American Hockey League is So Freaking Loveable

I’m not about to argue that the AHL is better than the NHL. I love lots of comments but not ones telling me what a dumbass I am.

However, I’m not entirely convinced the NHL is the most fun or the most satisfying as a die hard fan.

As we traveled around, going to 4 NHL, 3 AHL, and 1 OHL game, I left all those games with the overwhelming feeling that while I love all kinds of hockey, the AHL is the heart and soul of the pro game for me.

The AHL is where I cut my teeth as a hockey fan and writer and frankly, it’s where I get the vast majority of my warm fuzzies as a hockey fan.

Plus, if I hadn’t been in an AHL market, I never would have seen Aaron Voros’ ass. These are important considerations.

Here are a few more:

The Fans

AHL fans are just happy you’re a fellow AHL fan. I’ve been booed in Boston and stink-eyed in Detroit (probably shouldn’t have screamed “SUCK IT, DETROIT!” when the Wild beat them in OT last week), but in visiting AHL barns, it’s just nice to see another fan who cares enough to travel with the team.

The Players

I roll into these AHL towns, Cleveland, Syracuse, Hamilton, and I try to put myself in the shoes of these players arriving for the first time.

Lemme tell ya… Binghamton, NY is a far cry from Ottawa. The same can be said of many AHL cities relative to their parent clubs. I won’t name names *cough*Hamilton*cough*, just take my word that it can be pretty grim.

But the players… they carry on. They carry on because they have a dream of being in (or back in) the show. They carry on because their career is fading but they love the game and still have something left to give.

My favorite guys are the career AHLers. The captains, the journeymen, the guys who are generally in a new place every year or every two years and are off the NHL radar.

These guys bring up the prospects, show them how to be pros, provide the glue that holds the team together while the younger prospects climb up and down the ladder, fighting for that rung that launches them up to the parent club for good.

There is some glory in it, but it’s a homespun kind of glory that isn’t going to get you on ESPN. But it might inspire a kid like Tyler Myers to take up hockey or some 30 year-old woman to become a hockey writer and a beer league goalie.

The Environment

The AHL is intimate. Most teams aren’t packing the house every night, or even most nights, so you get to know the die-hards and the characters who make up the fan base.

And as I’ve been learning, both from this trip and many other AHL arena visits, the variety of experiences in the AHL lend to its charm.

Sure, Joe Lewis Arena in Detroit is way different from Staples Center, but in general, the NHL experience is pretty homogenized.

The AHL, though, is a little more “box of chocolates” in just about every way. The buildings are all vastly different from town to town, the crowds all have a different energy, the talent levels vary depending on the financial state of the organization.

Sometimes, I get the sense that people who don’t follow the league envision the AHL as sort of this mysterious black box that players of their NHL team disappear to occasionally.

The truth is, AHL fans are as passionate and probably work harder as fans than most NHL fans. Information isn’t as readily available, so almost out of necessity, relationships are cultivated that keep information about the team flowing and that inherently bonds the hockey community together.

The bottom line is that the AHL just feels like home. It’s imperfect, occasionally dysfunctional, but full of warmth and mutual passion.

It’s where I learned to love the game. It’s where I got my chance to write about the game, and it’s where I became inspired to play the game myself.

It’s where players become something other than a scouting report and prove themselves both on and off the ice.

The AHL is where a lot of unheralded magic happens, and for me, there is nothing minor league about that.