Today was supposed to be the first day of the NHL season. 8 teams were meant to play their first game today: the Bruins, Flyers, Blues, Avalanche, Canadiens, Senators, Canucks, and Flames. Instead, the NHL and NHLPA continue to discuss everything but the core economic issues during the CBA negotiations, leading to fears that the entire NHL season might be lost to the lockout.
Not to worry: there’s still hockey. The AHL regular season kicks off tomorrow, with 7 games on the schedule, as does the ECHL regular season, with 8 games of their own. The major junior leagues in Canada are already in full swing, as is NCAA division 1 hockey and the USHL in the States. For a lot of hockey fans, there is high-level hockey being played nearby, so who needs the NHL?
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy for every fan. For many hockey fans living in NHL cities, their hockey-viewing options are far more limited.
Some fans have it easy. For hockey fans in Toronto, they have the Leafs’ AHL farm team, the Marlies, as well as several OHL franchises in easy reach. Chicago has the Wolves of the AHL and the Steel of the USHL. For Major Junior hockey, Ottawa has the 67′s, Calgary has the Hitmen, Edmonton has the Oil Kings, and Vancouver has the Giants. Boston fans have multiple options for Division 1 NCAA hockey, while Buffalo, Columbus, Denver, and St. Paul fans have at least one.
Not everyone is aware of their options, in which case the Hockey Team Finder can come in handy. Just put in your location and it will find the nearest AHL, ECHL, Major Junior, NCAA, and USHL teams. But it also reveals that some fans are going to be hard-pressed to find high-level local hockey.
9 of the 30 NHL cities are over 100 kilometres from their nearest non-NHL team, while over half are at least 50 kilometres away.
Phoenix fans have it the worst, unsurprisingly, with their nearest option being the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL, a 462 km, 5 and a half hour long drive away. For some fans, their closest high-level option is their team’s AHL affiliate, who are still a long ways away: Washington fans are 214 kms from the Hershey Bears, Carolina fans are 241 kms from the Charlotte Checkers, St Louis fans are 271 kms from the Peoria Rivermen, and Dallas fans are 300 kms from the Texas Stars.
Fans in Sunrise and Tampa Bay, Florida, are fortunate to have two ECHL teams in their state, the Florida Everblades and the Orlando Solar Bears. Unfortunately, the two teams are 183 kms and 158 kms away, respectively. Nashville fans, on the other hand, would need to cross state lines to see their closest option, the University of Alabama in Huntsville Chargers, a 176 km drive.
Ironically, Winnipeg hockey fans could be enjoying AHL hockey stacked with NHL-level talent right now, instead of seeing their brand new Jets locked out. Their closest option is the Brandon Wheat Kings, 218 kms away.
I have seen a number of calls for hockey fans to step outside the NHL during the lockout and to still go see hockey in another form. It’s not always that easy, unfortunately. There are, of course, lower leagues to go see and the hockey there can definitely be entertaining. Phoenix hockey fans desperate for hockey can make the shorter 147 km trek up to Prescott Valley to watch the CHL’s Arizona Sundogs, for instance, and it would only be about half an hour for Dallas Stars fans to see their CHL affiliate, the Allen Americans.
That level of hockey isn’t always satisfying unfortunately. Personally, I love watching Junior A hockey – I grew up watching the Chilliwack Chiefs in the BCJHL – but for others that level of hockey just won’t fill an NHL-sized hole. That can be even more tough when your best option is a minor pro league that may feature more fights than goals.
The point is that following the NHL is easy. In most markets, every game is televised locally and there is plenty of information available online and in the local newspaper to help you follow along. Attending a game is as simple as buying tickets and going to the game. For fans outside their favourite team’s geographical location, there’s NHL Centre Ice and the aforementioned wealth of online information.
Move down a level to the AHL and things become more difficult. Television coverage will be scant, online coverage hit-or-miss, and newspaper coverage nearly non-existent. Following a team from further away becomes a chore rather than a hobby in some cases and attending a game becomes an ordeal. Go down further into other professional, college, and junior leagues and the problems become magnified. A season ticket holder for a local team may have no interest in driving over an hour to watch a team with which he has no personal connection.
It’s easy to tell people to keep watching hockey and challenging them with the question of whether they love hockey or just the NHL, but for many fans it’s far easier to just leave hockey out of their lives. For fans in markets with limited options for watching hockey outside of the NHL, it’s even easier to just let hockey slip away and find something else with which to replace it.