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NHL's loss could be big gain for junior hockey clubs

Sunaya Sapurji
Yahoo Sports

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The OHL's Brampton Battalion play just outside Toronto. (OHL Images)

Phil Ercolani wears many different hats at his job. On this day, he’s adding inflatable tank-tester to his resume along with his usual duties on the marketing, sales, and public relations fronts.

With the Brampton Battalion’s home opener less than 24 hours away, Ercolani needs to make sure everything – including the faux tank the team skates through to take the ice - is in tip-top shape.

“We had to make sure it all worked,” said Ercolani. “You don’t want the tank tipping over or you find out your (air) blower is blown… it’s Murphy’s Law, if it can go wrong it will go wrong, so we try to do as much testing as we can and then try to take on the unthinkable as it falls into our lap.”

What has dropped into the lap of the 60 Canadian Hockey League franchises across Canada and in the United States, at least for now, is a Closed sign on the National Hockey League. On the opening weekend of the CHL regular season, NHL owners and players will be trying to make progress on finding a settlement on a new collective bargaining agreement instead of settling into training camp.

For clubs like the Battalion, who operate close to an NHL city, labour strife at the pro level could provide a much-needed boost to their attendance. Brampton and the Mississauga Steelheads are teams that have been battling long and hard to attract more fans in the Greater Toronto Area despite a successful on-ice product. The Battalion are currently without an arena lease agreement and there has been constant talk throughout the summer about the Ontario Hockey League franchise potentially moving.

“The last time the NHL was locked out in 2004-05, we did see a significant increase in our walk-up crowd and that’s unfortunately something you can never really control,” said Ercolani, whose father, Benny, is the NHL’s long-time chief statistician. “The year after the lockout in 2005-06, that was our highest attendance number for one full season.”

According to the league’s attendance figures, the Battalion averaged 2,734 fans over their 34 home-game schedule that year. It’s been steadily declining ever since, though there was a slight bump to an average of 1,986 last season. Ercolani said that the team has been working since May with the lockout in mind to try and boost ticket sales. This season all Thursday night home games in Brampton will feature $10 tickets for any seat at the Powerade Centre.

“One thing we’ve noticed is that we’ve already gotten more media attention than we would have gotten last year,” said Ercolani. “It’s definitely a good start.”

The lockout will also mean more television exposure for junior hockey. According to OHL commissioner David Branch the league is trying to finalize details with Rogers Sportsnet – owners of the CHL’s national broadcast rights – to expand the number of games shown across the country on Friday nights. The world junior hockey championship, already a ratings winner for TSN during the Christmas holiday season, could feature may of the game’s young stars in Russia in December should there be a prolonged lockout.

“Everything right now suggests that, yes, we will be starting up (nationally televised games) maybe as much as a month before we might have otherwise would,” said Branch.

The commissioner, however, said he doesn’t expect to see NHL-starved fans running to the local junior rink just because there’s a lockout. He believes a season without the NHL hurts all hockey.

“We’re not forecasting any attendance bump… in fact I think that what our teams have entered into discussion on is how we can in due course create a positive spin on hockey that we can keep our current fan base coming and maybe attract some new ones,” said Branch, who also serves as CHL president.

“The lockout is not good for hockey regardless of what level you happen to be at. I don’t think anyone will necessarily realize any extreme benefit and so we’re just hopeful that one, it’s a short lockout, and two, that we can all work hard to create the view that, ‘Yes, hockey is being played and you know what it is a good game so let’s try and find some escape in CHL hockey’ as opposed to being concerned and upset that there’s no hockey at the NHL level.”

Branch’s counterpart in the WHL, Ron Robison, said he believes the impact of the lockout is unlikely to be felt outside of the NHL markets that also host junior teams – Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton.

“If we go back to the 2004-05 season, if that was an indicator, we certainly saw an increase in Calgary and Vancouver, which at the time were our NHL markets,” said Robison. “We would expect that we would see the same pattern continue this year if there was an extended lockout. We don’t believe there will be much impact in our other centres where we enjoy reasonably good attendance overall, but certainly we think that if there was going to be an impact it would be in the NHL centres.”

The WHL’s Vancouver Giants, who play out of the 16,200-seat Pacific Coliseum, have already announced a lockout special with their upper-bowl seats on sale for $15 – including tax – for the first three home games of the regular season. But the biggest draw for fans might not be in the ticket prices but rather in the talent they’ll be able to watch. With the NHL cancelling their training camps, players who would regularly have started the season with their parent clubs are back to start in junior.

“Our teams are currently at work to establish different marketing plans, where our players will be highlighted," said QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau. The QMJHL’s reigning champion – the Saint John Sea Dogs – will start the year with Jonathan Huberdeau, the Florida Panthers’ third-overall pick and arguably the best player back in junior.

For Niagara IceDogs head coach and GM Marty Williamson, that means starting the season with two top-10 NHL draft picks - forward Ryan Strome (New York Islanders) and Dougie Hamilton (Boston Bruins) - in the lineup. In most other years, NHL clubs would keep their junior-eligible talent for up to nine games before deciding to send them back or keep them for an entire season.

“It’s pretty surprising to have both guys and obviously it’s all good,” said Williamson, who coached the IceDogs to an Eastern Conference banner last season. “The downside is that we do believe we are going to lose them at some point, so yeah we can get some points in the bank and that kind of stuff, but I would imagine as soon as the lockout ends they’re going to be gone.”

As for the players being called up mid-season from the OHL in the event the NHL is back in business, Branch said there has been no discussion to date with either the NHL or the NHL Players’ Association about how that would be handled. He did note, however, that the CHL-NHL agreement between the two leagues has been extended until next summer – meaning that the rules regulating where a junior-aged player is able to play will still be followed. The only exception for the lockout are 19-year-old’s like Edmonton Oilers rookie Ryan-Nugent Hopkins, who would be able to play in the AHL because he’s already played one year in the NHL.

“Rather than trying to develop any number of potential possibilities we’re just going to wait and see,” said Branch of how the NHL would recall junior players. “A lot of that will obviously depend on the length of the training camp the NHL may decree their teams will have, etc., in the middle of the year.”

And while Williamson said he’s more than happy to have Strome and Hamilton back, he’s sad his players have had to put their NHL dreams on hold.

“I know how badly those two guys have worked to get to the NHL,” said Williamson. “I feel kind of bad knowing that they’re not getting that opportunity right now. Selfishly for our hockey team it’s a huge boost having them, but when you’ve seen them work so hard for their goal – and now there’s a delay for them – I feel bad for them, because they’re missing out.”

Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
Email: sunaya@yahoo-inc.com | Twitter @Sunayas