With the NHL closed for business, minor-league hockey is thriving.
Attendance is up and some players with NHL experience welcome the playing time in the minors. Ten of the American Hockey League's top 13 scorers were on NHL rosters a year ago.
Chicago Wolves forward Brad Larsen started with the Colorado Avalanche and spent the final six weeks with the Atlanta Thrashers, although he was injured for much of his time in Atlanta. The Wolves are a Thrashers AHL affiliate. Larsen had already spent four seasons in the minors, so going back was no big deal.
"In Chicago it's been a great situation for me," Larsen said Friday. "They really treat us well."
The lockout has dragged on for three months. The NHL and the players' association rejected each other's proposals Tuesday, with no new talks scheduled.
Some of the farm systems prepared for this for more than a year. The minors, however, did not want to market themselves based on someone else's problems.
"That's not what we're in it to do," said Jason Chaimovitch, a spokesman for the AHL, based in Springfield, Mass. "I don't think anybody benefits from the labor stoppage in the NHL."
Instead, teams used different sales pitches, from money-back guarantees to educational promotions.
AHL attendance has jumped up 8 percent to an average of 5,484 fans this season from 5,079 a year ago.
Three AHL franchises -- Chicago, Philadelphia and Edmonton -- share markets with NHL teams. The Wolves' attendance is up 24 percent; the Philadelphia Phantoms' is nearly 20 percent higher; and Edmonton, in its first season in the AHL, is averaging 8,000, fourth highest in the league.
There's also been double-digit attendance increases for the Hamilton, Ontario, franchise -- located between NHL cities Buffalo and Toronto -- and for the Rochester, N.Y., team.
Brian Wong of Wilmington, Del., buys tickets for about 20 Philadelphia Flyers game each year, giving away some. Watching European soccer on TV helped get him through some of the lockout. Then he decided to buy tickets for 10 Phantoms games, beginning in January. The Phantoms offered him better and less expensive seats, enabling Wong to take his family instead of just one child.
"I think it's filled the void," he said.
Lou Georgetta of Franklin Park, Ill., grew up in the era of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita but gave up attending Chicago Blackhawks games five years ago. The father of two teen boys now holds Wolves season tickets.
"It's very fan-friendly," he said. "There's activities for the children. The players are very accessible. The owners did their homework."
Last spring, the Wolves got out the message -- NHL lockout or not, their season was on.
"We didn't want people thinking that if the NHL wasn't playing, we weren't playing," said Adam Fox, the Wolves' executive vice president.
So the Wolves offered a money-back guarantee aimed at fans unsure about committing to season tickets. It also helps to have cheaper seats -- Wolves tickets range from $9 to $40 per game and from $360 to $1,400 for a 40-game plan. Blackhawks tickets are $15 to $250 per game and $608 to $10,125 for a 45-game plan.
Elsewhere, attendance has increased:
6.8 percent in the 28-team ECHL in the first eight weeks of the season to 3,920 fans per game. The increase is tied mostly to season-ticket sales, not the lockout, commissioner Brian McKenna said.
4.9 percent in the 17-team Central Hockey League to 4,383 a game. The Phoenix-based CHL is focusing on special events, such as educating children about the sport. One team recently had 9,000 fans for an 11 a.m. game.
1.3 percent in the 14-team United Hockey League to 3,111 fans. UHL president and chief executive Richard Brosal said it's too early to assess the lockout's impact because attendance usually grows after the holidays.
"It's hard to compete with Thanksgiving and Santa Claus," Brosal said.