Were you aware of the existence of the Allen Americans? Neither was I. (www.chlphotos.com)

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.

Comments (27)

  1. Coverage in lower leagues varies by extremes. For example, the Bakersfield Californian (newspaper) covers the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL with a full article on every single game plus articles for player signings and trades. Many of the local TV stations cover them for every game. In the same league, there are teams with no more than a box score in their local paper and nothing on TV. In many cases, this coverage is the difference between making it and failing for these teams. The good thing is that generally, with the internet, the team and league sites in the ECHL and AHL will cover everything pretty well. Often radio or video streaming is available online if you can’t make it to every game because of distance. America One does a streaming broadcast for all ECHL games for $8 a game, $30 a month, or $150 a year. http://www.b2tv.com/

  2. Just curious, does the CHL not meet the requirements? The Arizona Sundogs are in Prescott, about 100mi north of Phoenix. Not exactly next door, but not all the way to Vegas either.

    • The difference in quality between CHL and ECHL is pretty pronounced. That said, CHL is still considered ‘AA’ like the ECHL, so I would have included them.

      • Oh, no doubt. I guess it was more a question of “where do you draw the line?” If plopping down on the wooden bleachers of the 2100 seat Ritter Arena to watch my alma mater NCAA D1 RIT Tigers play counts, then I’d imagine AA minors count too. I dunno.

        • I would think so. Of course, I’m the type of person that would watch SPHL or AA Jr if there were no other options.

        • Hey AJ, thanks for your comments. It was indeed a question of ‘where to draw the line’, and the line right now is ‘below the ECHL but above the CHL’. I may add more leagues, in which case the CHL would be the next pro league added.

          • ASU’s hockey program is D1 but not NCAA D1. but in a pinch they are excellent to watch.

  3. Of you are talking about NCAA and CHL hokey then you have to include CIS hockey as well… Fans all across Canada have that option to go watch exciting hockey not to mention college and junior a which is definitely lower calibre but provides hockey to smaller areas.

    • CIS hockey is a great option and defiantly a higher quality than the NCAA and CHL. Plus the games are pretty cheap to go to (when I was in university it was $12 to go see my schools team play.) On top of that there are some great rivalries built in with alot of local schools and whatnot.

    • Thanks for the comment – CIS is at the top of the list of amateur leagues to be added.

  4. I am just thankful that San Francisco has a new hockey team – SF Bulls – to fill my hockey needs for now. Never watched a lowel level before, but I’m all game to soak it in considering my options are nothing or football.

    • You should be happy with the quality of the ECHL. It’s clearly not NHL, but they put a good product on the ice. I’ve been watching Bakersfield Condors games for years and years (we play against you Friday at the Cow Palace) and on some level, almost enjoy those games more than NHL games. Good tickets are cheaper and more likely to be available, plus the teams play each other a lot to save on travel costs, so rivalries develop very fast. If you get really into it, it’s not that horribly far to catch a road game in Stockton (1.5 hours) or Bakersfield either (~4 hours). Both have reasonably new buildings and solid fan bases too.

      • Already have my tickets for Friday night. Considering getting tickets for Saturday as well. I am liking the price of these tickets.

        • Yeah, no complaints on ticket prices. In Bakersfield, it’s $27 for tickets on the glass and $13 for the worse seats. You can barely get into an NHL game for that!

    • I had friend describe the difference between NHL and ECHL hockey as the difference between a symphony and good heavy metal.
      I’ve been going to Ontario Reign games since they were founded and do find myself sometimes enjoying them more. Tickets are cheaper, parking is cheaper (and more convinient) and anything can happen in a game.

      • Yeah, some of the crazy things that happen in the minors are absolutely crazy. I’ve seen players attack a fan who has been heckling them all game, players talking with opposing fans while they sit in the penalty box, benches emptied for a gigantic brawl, coaches refusing to bring their team on the ice. Not only that, but the game is more wide open because the systems and defensive players aren’t quite as sound. I’ve seen 3 goal comebacks with 2 minutes left in the game. The players are very available after games. Good times all around!

        • Oh, and my favorite: A fan was mocking the ref and slid a dollar between the glass as if to bribe him…the ref took it, smiled and skated off! Very funny moment!

  5. Don’t discount the entertainment value of good AAA Midget hockey either, they may still be kids but the product can be incredibly exciting. It can be tough to find good games as the matchups can be a bit lopsided at times, but if there’s a top level tournament around you can probably catch 5+ great games in a day.

  6. Junior A hockey for me.. and always was to be honest for live hockey. 15 bucks a ticket.. lounge upstairs with real drinks at decent prices.. 10 minute drive from home.

    or 45-60 minute drive to see the Oil Leaks..and a small mortgage for the night for tickets.. 10 bucks for a beverage that is called beer that they have filtered through a horse first.. 15 bucks just for the pleasure of parking..

    and Junior A is very good hockey. NHL is great hockey..at times..but over rated as “the only game in town” so to speak in my opinion.

  7. Just an FYI, Bruins fandom encompasses all of New England. Sure, fans in Boston have access to Division I college hockey and the AHL Bruins in Providence just down the road, but what about Bruins fans in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, or Caribou, Maine?

    And even if you’re closer, what if you’re 14, or 75, and you can’t just hop in a car and go to a game?

    And there are not only geographic constraints, but scheduling ones. I live in an AHL city, but I work nights and weekends. When do AHL teams play? Weekends. Same as college teams. The 10-game plan I had for the Bruins had most games on Tuesdays and Mondays. I doubt I’m the only person with this difficulty.

    I took a personal day for Oct. 20 to see an AHL game. I hope it’s not the only live game I see this winter.

    • Most teams try to get mainly weekend dates, but there are always quite a few on weekdays. Your mention of working nights reminds me that Vegas (ECHL) does a midnight game once a year for all of the casino workers who can’t normally come to the games. Kind of a cool idea!

      • I can understand AHL teams playing on weekends – and the older franchises, like the one here, get those prime weekends dates just about exclusively. They have NO Monday or Tuesday home games. Nada. They have two Tuesday games, both on the road.

  8. Better yet, instead of watching… just play.

  9. nhl owners and players can go to hell, all they care about is $$$$ they dont give a shit about the fans!!! billionares fighting with millionares!!! gimme a break..it will be a cold day in hell before i buy another product that has nhl on it!!! i travel about 10 mins to see non nhl hockey -windsor spitfires

  10. who cares!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Thanks for the link, Daniel. The impetus for the site was exactly as you said: “Not to worry: there’s still hockey”.

  12. Actually, Dallas Stars fans have quite a few options. Within the metroplex is as you mentioned, the Allen Americans.

    Another CHL team, the Fort Worth Brahmas in Hurt is also a great option.

    We also have the Texas Tornadoes of the NAHL in Frisco which is a lot of fun.

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