November 17, 2012 in Sports

As NHL lockout continues, more eyes turn to AHL

John Kekis Associated Press

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Bare-chested and dripping with sweat after a brief morning skate, Syracuse Crunch left winger Cory Conacher stood at the edge of the rink and tested the feel of a new hockey stick.

“Are there illegal curves in this league?” Conacher asked Friday with a devilish smile before retreating to the dressing room in the bowels of the Onondaga County War Memorial.

Indeed, the NHL lockout was an afterthought, at best, at that moment for Conacher, who is busy carving out a career in the American Hockey League. A player, just 22 years old, who fits those classic sports cliches right now – upside, potential, you name it – Conacher, like so many others in the league that they call the “A,” has no time to be concerned with the league that’s not playing hockey these days.

All that matters, is he’s playing somewhere.

And he’s making the most of it.

“Everyone thinks about it, but right now there’s no NHL and I don’t even really worry about it,” said Conacher, who had 39 goals and 80 points to earn AHL Rookie of the Year honors last season. “I’m not a guy that does research. I don’t know what the talks are like. There will be stuff on Twitter every once in a while, but I’m more worried about playing here and continuing to develop.

“It’s only my second year of professional, so it’s important for me to continue to grow and stay consistent.”

That’s good news for the home team and the entire AHL.

Fans and the media are showing great interest in Conacher and Co., as the lockout continues.

So far, all scheduled NHL games through Nov. 30 – 327 and the New Year’s Day outdoor Winter Classic – have been cancelled, and more cancellations are likely if a deal isn’t reached soon. The All-Star Game, in Columbus, Ohio, could be next off the list, as talks continue to produce little.

Though everybody, at all levels of this game, would like to see the impasse end sooner than later, the atmosphere in the AHL has never been better.

At midweek, overall attendance in the 30-team AHL stood at 970,416 after 184 games, an average of 5,274 per game. Five clubs were averaging more than 7,000 and another 10 were surpassing 5,000 nightly. Hershey led with an average attendance of 8,684 in six home games, while Syracuse had attracted 5,440 per game for the first four home dates, ahead of 2011-12.

“We’re way ahead in everything – tickets, sponsorship,” said Crunch owner Howard Dolgon, who switched NHL affiliations from Anaheim to Tampa Bay prior to the season. “I don’t think that’s all related to the lockout. I think, for us, a part of that is the excitement over the change in affiliations and the quality of the teams.

“I certainly think that there’s more of an emphasis on the American Hockey League now across the board. People are realizing just how good this league is, and now that they’re seeing it, the players are probably feeling a real sense of pride playing in this league.

“We’ve always been the second-best league in the world.

“Now, more people know that we are.”

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