Silver lining of NHL lockout

The National Hockey League labour dispute reaches its two-month milestone this week, and even if the league and its Players Association come to terms quickly, the damage has already been done.

The perennial Winter Classic outdoor game was cancelled, with the league forfeiting a $100 thousand stadium deposit in the process. All games scheduled through Nov. 30 are called off—resulting in a loss of $720 million in revenue, according to NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly.

Economies depending on NHL hockey are hurting, such as Winnipeg, which just reclaimed a club team in 2011, and Ottawa, which has no other professional sports club. Windsor, Ontario anticipated thousands of visitors to flood the city following the Winter Classic to boost the economy.

So with all this money seemingly disappearing into thin air, where is the silver lining you ask? Just ask the commissioner of any other hockey league on the planet.

“Our attendance is up—we’ve had the strongest start we’ve had, ever, in the first weekend and second weekend,” says American Hockey League President David Andrews to AOL Sporting News. “It’s really a great opportunity for us, and one we need to take advantage of gracefully. We’ll do the best we can to grow our game, and grow the awareness of our league.”

While the NHL may sit dormant, professional hockey players are not letting their season go to waste. Farm teams in Canada and the United States are taking advantage of superstars looking for a place to play, while some players signed contracts with European clubs.

Many NHLer’s are enduring their second lockout in eight seasons, and those born in Europe may soon opt for leagues on their own continent. The NHL has been, for the most part, unrivalled since the collapse of the World Hockey Association in 1979. However, Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, the Swiss National League, and the Czech Extraliga are attracting star players during the lockout.

If European players eagerly travel to North America for the promise to play with the finest players for colossal contracts, why wouldn’t Canadians and Americans head overseas for the same opportunity?

At present, six of the NHL’s top ten scorers last season are playing in Europe, in five different countries. League MVP Evgeni Malkin returned to his former KHL junior club Metallurg. Top defensemen Erik Karlsson joined Jokerit of the Finnish SM-liiga, while Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux is playing Germany’s DEL league.

Several players are using the lockout as an opportunity to join clubs with players from different NHL teams. San Jose’s Joe Thornton and New York Rangers’ Rick Nash, who won an Olympic gold medal together for Canada, teamed up to play with HC Davos in Switzerland.

Dale Weise is the lone Vancouver Canuck travelling to Europe, finding a team in the Netherlands. Weise exploded with 15 points in his first five games. The Canucks are the only club sending just a single player overseas, surprising in comparison to Boston and the New York Islanders which have nine players in Europe.

While the lockout is hurting hockey market economies across Canada and U.S., it is the opposite effect in Anchorage, Alaska. So far, three NHL players with ties to the state are playing for the Alaska Aces of the ECHL, treating fans to high-calibre hockey stars.

Multiple tiers below the NHL and a small salary cap means the ECHL isn’t used to players like Brandon Dubinsky, who is using the lockout as an opportunity to play hockey close to family for the first time since he was a child.

Several younger players have flocked to farm clubs in the American Hockey League for the chance to improve their game. There are currently over 70 NHL players active in the AHL, according to a list compiled by TSN.

The Edmonton Oiler’s top three scorers joined their AHL affiliate, Oklahoma City Barons—Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall. Oklahoma placed first in their conference last season, without the aid of NHL superstars.

Without the Vancouver Canucks in action, the Abbotsford Heat is the only professional hockey team to watch in British Columbia. In just their third AHL season, Abbotsford has the opportunity to grow its fan base in the lower mainland.

Abbotsford is the Calgary Flame’s farm club, and multiple players have signed with the Heat over the lockout. For a $15 ticket hockey fans are able to watch the farm club of nearly all NHL teams on a given night, including the Canucks’ affiliate, Chicago Wolves.

One benefit of the lockout for the Canucks is their injured players are able to recoup without otherwise missing any games. Jason Garrison is recovering from a groin injury and Alex Edler is dealing with a bulging disk in his back.

Ryan Kesler had shoulder and wrist surgery in the offseason and will likely be out until at least Dec. Since Kesler is on the injury reserved list he receives his full salary until he is cleared to play—how’s that for a silver lining?

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