March 10, 2013

From NEHJ: Family-friendly AHL packs 'em in

By Adam Kaufman

Falcons fans pack the stands at MassMutual Center in Springfield. (Photo: Jacob Fish)

When the National Hockey League locked out its players for the second time in less than a decade over the summer, some fans of the sport went into a widespread panic. Many were angry, others were concerned about the future of the league and everyone wondered when the league would return. It finally did in mid-January after 119 days in hibernation, and there might have been no phrase more popular than “hockey’s back!”

Thing is, hockey didn’t go anywhere.

The NHL — representing the game at its highest degree of skill — was most definitely on life support, but hockey was very much alive and breathing. Just ask the minor and junior leagues, or the collegiate programs, never mind the Mites, Squirts, Pee Wees, Bantams and Midgets. In New England alone, there are dozens of highly competitive teams at various levels. Still, nearly every stick-carrying, puck-handling, skate-sharpening fan anxiously followed twitter, blogs and rumors until a chilly morning in New York City warmed everyone’s hockey-beating hearts just before sunrise.

In the American Hockey League, effectively the sport’s second-highest professional rank, teams continued to thrive with little-to-no off-ice impact caused by the NHL’s absence. Attendance figures largely remained consistent with the previous season with subtle fluctuations from team to team, and fans continued passionately rooting on their local heroes.

For any number of reasons, many AHL fans were completely unaffected and, frankly, they consciously rate the NHL’s feeder league as superior to “The Show.”

“I am so happy to have the AHL team here,” said Deena Conelli, a seven-year season-ticket holder of the Connecticut Whale, formerly known as the Hartford Wolf Pack. “There’s always some talk about bringing an NHL team back into Hartford and I don’t really participate in that conversation because I wouldn’t want that.

“I have second row from the glass, four seats,” added Conelli, who goes to most games with her husband and their two kids. “If it was an NHL team, I couldn’t possibly afford those same seats. My children have grown up at the XL Center and around hockey, and I love what it does for my family. We make it an event with dinner before the game and ice cream after the game.”

“I’ve been to NHL games before but I enjoy the AHL more because I’m watching these kids develop, do what they love to do and strive for their dream of playing in the NHL,” gushed Pat Lucey, president of the Falcons booster club and a season-ticket holder in Springfield for almost 50 years. “The Billy Smiths, going back, or Danny Briere, more recently — watching all of them grow up and then be superstars and achieve their dreams is the biggest thing for me.”

Rich Lundin, a Sharks booster club member and season-ticket holder in Worcester since the first year of the IceCats in 1994, said it’s not only getting to watch the players develop that he enjoys, but also the relationships that can be forged with them.

“Being able to be closer to the players is a big thing as a minor-league fan. You have much easier access to them, compared to the NHL. There are season-ticket holder events or, after the game, you can walk right up to the players when they leave the building to talk to them or get their autographs.”

Interestingly, many such fans have no real NHL allegiance and instead closely follow the careers of the players and coaches who have passed through their minor-league cities on the way to stardom. Others enjoy the opportunity to get to know the athletes away from the rink and out in the community.

“I like seeing the charitable side of the players, and how they go out to the hospitals, schools and places like that,” said Manchester Monarchs season-ticket holder Adrianne Liggett, who’s had her seats since the puck first dropped in Manchester in 2001. “My daughter Kendall is active in the Kids Club, and it’s wonderful how the Monarchs players react to these kids.”

Liggett hasn’t missed a game — regular season or playoff — in nearly four years, and part of the reason is because of the in-game entertainment, activities that certainly aren’t limited to Manchester.

Musical chairs on the ice, human bowling, Chuck-A-Puck, sing-a-longs, celebrity autograph signings, promotional giveaways, concerts, theme and group nights, postgame skates with players, jersey auctions and much more are staples of any given minor-league sporting event.

There’s also what happens in the stands — the camaraderie formed among fans — that is stronger than any team initiative or championship season could ever be.

“We’ve built up such a great fan base in the Portland area,” said nine-year Pirates season-ticket holder Andrew Hart, who owns just one seat. “You’ve seen the Washington Capitals come through, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, the Buffalo Sabres and now the Phoenix Coyotes. You’ve got this great market that keeps coming back time and time again, regardless of who the parent club is.

“I’ve got a lot of friends who sit in my section,” Hart continued. “We look at it as more of a family within a family atmosphere, people who have known each other for years now. We’ve attended children’s birthday parties, had summer parties and gone on road trips together.”

Sure, some of those road trips might be several hours away, but when you have seven teams in New England — in Worcester, Springfield, Manchester, Providence, Portland, Connecticut and Bridgeport — another luxury for AHL fans is that they don’t need to drive far to root on their favorite teams.

“You can’t do that with the Boston Bruins,” acknowledged Lundin. “You’d have to go to New York or Long Island to see them play on the road, basically. Here, it’s nothing. That’s what makes our fans different. We’re able to do that to support the teams and see the away games.”

More often than not, a minor-league team’s perks — the proximity to other teams, affordability, great promotions, player accessibility and family-driven entertainment — are aided by the front office. Unlike at the major-league level, staffs in the minors tend to be very small, young and eagerly accessible, from the folks in ticket sales up to the team president, all to make fans feel like a priority in the hope they’ll keep coming back.

Mix it all together and sprinkle in some above-average talent on the ice, and you can’t help but wonder …

“While the NHL was locked out, I felt like it was great for AHL teams because we had a lot of talent, guys who wouldn’t have been there who we were fortunate enough to watch,” said Lucey. “Personally, and I think I might be the only one around, I didn’t want to see them go back.”

Is that a popular opinion? Well, no. But, is she the only one who feels that way? It doesn’t sound like it.

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @AdamMKaufman