Lockout history on AHL's side

Updated: September 18, 2004, 1:03 AM ET
Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Minor league hockey blossomed during the NHL's 1994 lockout. The American Hockey League got more television exposure, gained fans and expanded its franchises by a dozen.

With the latest NHL lockout that began Thursday, minor league hockey again shifts into the limelight -- and while officials are excited about the exposure and the possibility of more fan support, they also are fearful that a prolonged NHL absence could damage the sport itself.

That's the dilemma for AHL president and chief executive officer David Andrews, who said he began preparing for a lockout 14 months ago. He knows his league will get a fresh look from people who may not ordinarily watch, and the work stoppage could intensify support from regular AHL fans.

But he recognizes there also are risks.

"Long term, if this goes longer than [in] 1994-95, it would begin to have a detrimental impact on the AHL and other leagues, because the NHL is really the engine that drives hockey from the public point of view," Andrews said.

The lockout moved into its second day Friday with no movement toward negotiations. Players continued to look for opportunities to play, in Europe and in minor leagues in North America. Team owners and players both say the entire season could be at risk.

Now in his 11th year as AHL head, Andrews said he had hoped a lockout could be avoided and now hopes the season can be resumed as soon as possible.

"But now that it's here," Andrews said from the AHL's headquarters in Springfield, Mass., "we'll take advantage of it as best as we can."

For instance, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers are hoping some New York Rangers and Islanders fans will make the trip up Interstate 95.

"It's an opportunity for the Sound Tigers and the American Hockey League to expose the product to a lot of fans who may not have seen it in the past," said Bill McLaughlin, a team spokesman. "Until the National Hockey League situation is resolved, the top level of professional hockey in the entire world is the American Hockey League and it will be played in Bridgeport."

AHL franchises expect to get more airtime from regional sports networks now scrambling to fill slots. The AHL has signed an agreement with Rogers Sportsnet, a primary purveyor of NHL games to Canada's rabid fans, to broadcast as many as 25 games this year. Andrews said he expects to ink a deal soon with ESPN2 to show the AHL All-Star game as well.

Some NHL players are expected to appear in the AHL, whose season begins Oct. 13. Three Ottawa Senators regulars are expected to play for the club's farm team in Binghamton, N.Y. Ottawa goalie Dominik Hasek is expected to work out with the minor league team for two weeks.

"We've had the phones ringing off the hooks with people inquiring about tickets," said Mike Callahan, Binghamton's spokesman. "There's a large buzz in Binghamton, with their names being tossed around that they may play."

Andrews said the league will benefit from the extra exposure. After the 103-day NHL lockout in 1994-95, the AHL grew to 28 teams from 16. Attendance is nearly 6,000 per game, up from about 4,300 a decade earlier, according to Andrews.

"We have grown exponentially since [the 1994-95 stoppage], and I would say the window we had really helped us springboard to the level where we are now," he said.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press