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NHL lockout trickles down to WHL

Spokane Chiefs logo (The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Chiefs logo (The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Chiefs played hockey on Saturday night – as did the rest of the Western Hockey League over the weekend. They’ll do it again this weekend – and for the next six months or so.

It’s hard to say when, or if, the National Hockey League will follow, as the current game is being played off the ice as the owners and players argue, mostly about money.

But in the WHL – one of the Canadian Hockey League’s three major junior hockey leagues – hockey is still the focus, and the current NHL lockout situation has created a trickle-down effect. NHL veterans will play in Europe or the American Hockey League, which will displace AHL players and force some of them into the East Coast Hockey League, and so on.

Aside from the WHL’s three shared NHL markets – Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver – league commissioner Ron Robison doesn’t anticipate a huge jump on the financial end of things in the WHL.

“Right now, we don’t see a real significant impact to start the season but, should this be an extended lockout, then perhaps as the season progresses we’ll see more coverage and more attendance,” Robison said. “Obviously, we all hope the NHL is back playing as quickly as possible. It’s important for the game.”

What fans will see in the WHL – although Spokane won’t have this issue – is a small crop of players that was poised to make the jump to the NHL this season. Nineteen players chosen in the first round of the 2012 NHL draft play in the CHL – and 14 of them have already inked deals with their respective NHL clubs.

Of those players, Columbus Blue Jackets prospect and second overall pick Ryan Murray will play in the U.S. Division for the Everett Silvertips.

Murray doesn’t have anything left to achieve in the WHL in terms of development – or junior hockey in general – and finds himself back for another season because of the lockout. Same with Edmonton’s Griffin Reinhart, Red Deer’s Mathew Dumba and Moose Jaw’s Morgan Rielly.

Advantage: junior hockey fans.

But the good times won’t last forever. If and when the NHL resumes its season, an agreement is in place for NHL teams to decide where Murray and others in the WHL end up. During the first NHL lockout in 1994-95, seven first-round picks from the CHL (out of 17) moved up to the NHL as rookies when play resumed.

That means teams such as Everett could get used to having players such as Murray before NHL teams snatch up these players and leave a hole on a handful of rosters throughout the WHL. That’s when teams such as Spokane could see an added bonus – in that its players will be used to one another.

At least the current hole left in hockey by the NHL lockout can be filled.