With the Sept. 15 lockout deadline looming (Saturday? Already?), optimism is shrinking that a deal will be done between the NHL and NHLPA in its collective bargaining negotiations. It appears there will be a void to fill, at least until November, maybe December, hopefully not all year.
No one is going to be happy about the lockout, but there are ways to live with it. Hockey has grown significantly in the United States, and along with it, so have the outlets from which fans can get their regular dose of this game. While there isn’t a single one of them that can replace the NHL, they’re at least effective in providing that fix.
Just because the NHL owners are locking out the players, it doesn’t mean they have to lock you out from the sport you love. Protests are all well and good, but they probably won’t solve anything. The best thing you can do in the lockout is serve yourself a heaping dose of ice hockey.
To help you out, United States of Hockey presents the “Living With the Lockout” series. Going through each division, we’ll provide every fan base of the American NHL teams three nearby options to fill the void. Some are well known, others are well off the beaten path, but that’s the beauty of hockey in the U.S. There’s a lot of it. Even if the NHL comes back sooner than later, you owe it to yourself to experience as much of the great hockey in this country as you can.
Coming up after the jump, Part III: The Southeast Division (sans Winnipeg).
With added buzz thanks to off-season acquisitions of Jordan Saal and Alex Semin, to go along with exciting youngsters like scoring sensation Jeff Skinner and up-and-coming defenseman Justin Faulk the delayed season must be killing the Caniacs. Carolina’s fan-base is probably underrated in the eyes of the hockey community, but they show up and make PNC Arena awfully noisy. Hockey is growing in North Carolina, which is great for the game and great for hockey fans, as there are more options than ever before to catch quality hockey.
Fayetteville FireAntz (SPHL) — The name alone is worth the price of admission. These aren’t just fire ants, they’re FireAntz. The Z alludes to edginess, which is certainly appropriate for the Southern Professional Hockey League. It might be low-level minor league hockey, but the SPHL has some really intriguing qualities. With its need to drive ticket sales, you’re sure to see quite a few scraps with entertaining-enough hockey. These are professionals after all. Fayetteville finished dead last in the nine-team league, but with the most expensive tickets coming in at $20 and kids under 12 getting in for $5, you’re going to have fun for a fairly cheap price. The FireAntz drew decently, despite the poor record, averaging 3,268 fans a game at the Crown Center. So it’s a little bit more of an intimate setting than what you get at the big arena and you have some affordable entertainment. Oh, and their mascot talks and is terrifying.
Must See Game: Columbus Cottonmouths at Fayetteville, Nov. 3, 7:30 p.m. – The FireAntz welcome the SPHL’s defending champion in just its second home game of the season. It’ll be a good first look for fans at what they’re getting themselves into with the SPHL and provide a significant test for Fayetteville.
East Coast Eagles (EJHL South) — This one is a bit out of the way for folks in Raleigh, but who would have thought even 10 years ago there would be junior hockey in North Carolina? Certainly not me. The Eagles play out of Wake Forest, which is a long way to go for Tier III junior hockey, but a new partnership with the Eastern Junior Hockey League has provided good opportunities for junior-aged players to advance up the ranks. The Eagles have teams in EJHL South and the Empire Junior Hockey League’s Southern Division, giving a plethora of opportunities to junior-aged players in non-traditional markets to stay close to home and continue their careers. The quality of hockey isn’t going to be close to what you see in the USHL or NAHL or even the original EJHL in the northeast. That said, it’s younger players fighting for a chance, and that leads to some exciting ice hockey. The Eagles play out of the Polar Ice House in Wake Forest.
Must See Game: Hampton Roads Whalers at East Coast, Oct. 27, 7:30 p.m. — Hampton Roads took the championship in the first year of the new EJHL South last year. Plus, if you’re one of those Hurricanes fans with a Whalers jersey, you’d have a good excuse to wear it, if you’re OK with cheering against the home team. Hampton Roads’ logo is close to the old H-Whale Tail.
Charlotte Checkers (AHL) — Well, Raleigh to Charlotte isn’t exactly a hop, skip and a jump, but there aren’t a ton of teams in the AHL that have its top affiliate in such close proximity. With a rich prospect pipeline, the Hurricanes should have some serious talent stashed in Charlotte in the early-lockout months. You might not see the big-name stars, but you’re sure to see some future big-name players suiting up for the Checkers. Depending on what happens with an agreement between the Canadian Hockey League and the NHL, you might even get an up-close look at guys like Ryan Murphy or Victor Rask. The AHL should be a lot of fun to check out during the lockout. The quality should be even higher than it already is.
Must See Game: Chicago Wolves at Charlotte, Nov. 4, 3 p.m. — After spending the entire first month of the AHL season on the road, the Checkers will have its belated home opener in a Sunday matinee against the always-tough Wolves. You get all the excitement of a home opener and a 3 p.m. start makes it a little easier for a one-day roundtrip from Raleigh to Charlotte. Also, the first 2,500 fans get car window flags! Be one of the first 5,000 and you get a schedule magnet! How can you not go?
Must See Player: John Muse — Charlotte Checkers — Even with all the big-name prospects in the Carolina pipeline, Muse is one of the best stories. Undrafted out of Boston College, the diminutive goaltender won a pair of national titles for the Eagles. Most recently, however, in his first season as a pro, Muse helped backstop the Florida Everblades to the ECHL’s Kelly Cup and received Kelly Cup Playoff MVP honors, which earned him a contract. He’s a guy fans love to root for.
Florida Panthers & Tampa Bay Lightning
Well, I had to cheat a bit with these two. Most of the best hockey alternative options are located in Estero, Fla., which is about a two-hour drive from both Sunrise and Tampa, but each has something a little more local, too. Instead of the regular three options, I’ve got four for this combo.
After years of dismal teams, the NHL’s salary floor helped GM Dale Tallon spend more money to make his team better in free agency. As a result, the Cats made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 12 years and gave eventual Eastern Conference champion New Jersey all it could handle in a seven-game series. The lockout is really going to hurt Florida. The buzz coming off a playoff season and one of the deepest prospect pools in hockey has the Panthers on the verge of doing something special. The inability to capitalize on that to attract fans in a season that is sure to be delayed is unfortunate. A lockout is a certifiable buzz-kill.
The Lightning boast one of the great scorers in the league in Steven Stamkos. Coming off a stunning 60-goal season, Stamkos is one of the players in the league that can sell tickets all by himself. In fact, attendance has been up in Tampa since Stamkos arrived and starting scoring all those nifty goals. Anytime you have a player as hot as this youngster, you hate to see him not playing hockey.
So here are some distractions for some growing fanbases:
Florida Everblades (ECHL) — There was championship hockey played in Florida last year as the Everblades skated to the Kelly Cup title in the ECHL. Coming off the franchise’s first ever post-season championship, the Everblades are entering their 15th season in Estero, Fla., and have been one of the premier franchises in minor-league hockey. In fact, in each of its first 14 seasons, the Everblades have yet to miss the playoffs. Lightning fans may have a closer connection to the Blades, as they are the ECHL affiliate for Tampa Bay. Florida also has an affiliation with the Carolina Hurricanes. The ECHL gives tremendous hockey entertainment with minor league prices. The fans consistently come out for this club, averaging at least 5,000 fans a game in Germain Arena.
Must See Game: Orlando Solar Bears at Florida Everblades, Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m. — The home opener for the Everblades is likely to include a banner raising. The building should be rocking for what is sure to become a natural rival for the Everblades as the Solar Bears have returned to Orlando. The pair starts the season off with four games against each other, so it might be fun to be among the first to be there for the birth of a new ECHL rivalry.
Orlando Solar Bears (ECHL) — This one is more for the Lightning fans, since Orlando is a fairly short ride compared to what the folks in South Florida would have to endure. If you’re a minor-league junkie and remember the old International Hockey League, you may recall the Solar Bears as the last team to have won the Turner Cup back in 2000-01. When the league folded, with some teams being absorbed by the AHL, the Solar Bears closed up shop… Until now. Playing out of the Amway Center in Orlando, the Solar Bears may not have the allure of the championship teams of years past, but their timing couldn’t have been better. A locked out NHL could bring plenty of in-withdrawal fans to Orlando. I mean, how can you not love a team which’s logo is a polar bear with sunglasses?
Must See Game: Florida Everblades at Orlando Solar Bears, Oct. 20, 7 p.m. — How many times will you get to witness the re-birth of an organization? Well, in the minors, it happens with stunning regularity, but you know what I mean. The Solar Bears will meet the Florida Everblades in the final game of a season-opening four-game set. This should be a physical contest with more than a little bad blood. The energy in a home-opener is difficult to replicate outside of the playoffs, so this is a great game to get in for.
Florida Gulf Coast University – You might be shocked to find out FGCU has a hockey team. You’d probably be more surprised to find out they’ve won a national championship. The FGCU Eagles play in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, the governing body for collegiate club or “non-varsity” hockey. Skating in Division II, FGCU plays teams from all across the country. Last season, the Eagles hosted the ACHA D2 national championships and won the whole thing, topping Grand Valley State (Mich.) in the title game. So, yeah, these kids can play a bit. FGCU plays out of Germain Arena in Estero, so it’s a little bit of a trip to watch these guys play, but it’s quality hockey for even-cheaper-than-minors prices. No really, it’s five bucks to get in. You’ll probably feel better buying tickets, too, as it helps keeps costs down for the players who have to pay to play. For more: http://www.fgcuicehockey.com/home.html
Must See Game: Schedule TBD
Florida High School Hockey – Yes, it exists and it’s growing by the year. The Florida Scholastic Hockey League is split into two conferences named for each of the state’s NHL teams, so there’s bound to be a local team you can check out. For a complete listing of FSHL schools and teams, click here. In fact, the North Broward Prepatory School, near Ft. Lauderdale, represented the state in the 2012 USA Hockey High School National Championship. It is definitely worth getting out and supporting your local high school teams. The state championships are often held inside the NHL stadiums, so there’s a good chance for you to see some hockey played in the buildings occupied by your favorite teams at least. For more on the FSHL: http://fshl.cc/cms/
Must See Game: TBD
It seems there is perpetual buzz surrounding the Capitals. With one of the biggest stars in the game and an increasingly more rabid fan base, it’s not hard to see why. Now there’s a new buzz with first-year head coach and former Caps player Adam Oates coming to town. After a roller-coaster season that saw the firing of Bruce Boudreau, hiring of Caps legend Dale Hunter, then Hunter’s sudden resignation before the hiring of Oates, I think the Caps faithful is ready for a fresh start. Unfortunately they’ll have to wait. Here are three options to kill the time.
Liberty University — If you’re in the DC area, you’re not going to find a much closer hockey option than the Liberty University hockey team. They play in American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I and are a perennial national title contender. With players from across the U.S. and Canada, they have iced a quality team every year since making the jump the ACHA D1 in 2006-07. The Flames play out of the LaHaye Ice Center, which is an incredibly unique building in which to watch a hockey game with less-than-traditional seating arrangements. If you’re looking for a fast-paced game with all of the atmosphere of college hockey, LU is a pretty sound option.
Must See Game: University of Delaware at Liberty, Nov. 9, 7 p.m. — The Flames will welcome the ACHA’s defending national champion as the Blue Hens come to the nation’s capital. With these two quality teams, there’s probably not a better way to get your first taste of the always-entertaining ACHA hockey.
U.S. Naval Academy — Annapolis isn’t too far away, right? Right. Unlike the other service academies’ hockey teams, Navy is not yet NCAA Division I. Many have called for the academy to make the jump, but they seem to be doing just fine in ACHA Division I. There’s something about academy kids where you can always expect a hard-nosed, grind-it-out type of affair. The Midshipmen finished last season ranked 25th in the country, outside of the national tournament, but should be withing striking distance this year. The Middies play on campus at McMullen Arena. If you like America and you like hockey, you’ll probably like the guys who are studying to defend America while playing hockey. So everybody wins here.
Must See Game: University of Rhode Island at Navy, Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m. — The Middies will welcome one of the perennial powers in the ACHA as the Rhode Island Rams come to McMullen Arena for some Friday-night hockey. If the Midshipmen hope to contend for a spot at the national tournament, this home series against Rhode Island will be crucial.
Fort Dupont Cannons — They’ve gotten a little more publicity in recent years, but the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club based in D.C. is one of the most important youth hockey organizations in the country and deserve every bit of press they get. Founded by a gentleman (and I mean gentleman) named Neal Henderson, Fort Dupont provides under-privileged and inner-city youths the opportunity to play organized hockey without the burden of those high costs usually associated with the game. This organization is the embodiment of “Hockey is for Everyone.” Henderson deservingly received USA Hockey’s highest honor in 2007, the Wm. Thayer Tutt Award, for his contributions to the game. The Cannons play out of the Fort Dupont Ice Arena. To learn more about this wonderful organization: http://fdihc.org/history.htm
Must See Game: Any. A schedule is TBD, but check back at that link for more.
Coming Up Next: The Central Division