Okay, straight-talk here, the whole lockout thing really isn't phasing me as much as it probably should be. I can deal with not having to travel three hours to Boston, and paying at the very least $25 for a seat to a Bruins game that's so high up that you're peering through Celtics championship banners to see the ice, and you may technically be in southern New Hampshire. I know a lot of you live and die by the NHL, but a lockout doesn't mean that you'll be without your favorite sport. Let me offer you a few alternatives to get your hockey fix.
1) College hockey
College hockey has a long and storied tradition in America. Right now, about 30% of NHL players have played for an NCAA school. There are two divisions of major college hockey in America, Division 1 and Division 3. Don't ask me why there isn't a second division.
Division 1 consists currently of 5 athletic conferences, holding a total of 58 programs. The University of Alabama-Huntsville also plays at the Division 1 level, but is independent of any conference. This is actually set to change next year, as the CCHA will be disbanding, and its member schools will play in two new conferences, one representing the Big Ten, and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The breakdown of school locations is as such:
Alabama - 1 (University of Alabma-Huntsville)
Alaska - 2 (UA-Fairbanks, UA-Anchorage)
Colorado - 3 (Colorado College, Air Force, Denver)
Connecticut - 4 (UConn, Yale, Quinnipeac, Sacred Heart)
Indiana - 1 (Notre Dame)
Maine - 1 (University of Maine)
Massachusetts - 10 (UMass, American International, Merrimack, Holy Cross, Bentley, Harvard, UMass-Lowell, Northeastern, Boston University, Boston College)
Michigan - 7 (University of Michigan, Michigan State, Western Michigan, Ferris St., Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech, Lake Superior St.)
Minnesota - 5 (University of Minnesota, Minnesota State, Minnesota-Duluth, Bemidji St., St. Cloud St.)
Nebraska - 1 (University of Nebraska-Omaha
New Hampshire - 2 (UNH, Dartmouth)
New Jersey - 1 (Princeton)
New York - 10 (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Union, Rochester Institute of Technology, Niagara, Canisius, Cornell, Colgate, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Army)
North Dakota - 1 (University of North Dakota)
Ohio - 3 (The Ohio State University, Bowling Green, Miami)
Pennsylvania - 2 (Mercyhurst, Robert Morris)
Rhode Island - 2 (Providence College, Brown)
Vermont - 1 (University of Vermont)
Wisconsin - 1 (University of Wisconsin)
Locate your nearest state. Use this map as a guide to find the team nearest to you. If you're lucky enough to live in New England, like I do, you can pretty much throw a rock in any direction and hit a D1 hockey school. I'm located in western Massachusetts, and have my pick of RPI, Union, UMass, and American International all within an hour and a half drive. Those in the Midwest also have a pretty good grouping of teams to pick from.
No D1 teams within reasonable driving distance? If you live near a smaller college, you may be in luck. The NCAA's Division 3 contains 72 schools. I'm not listing all of them, do a little research on your own. These schools are for the most part located in the upper midwest, the northeast, and New England. My local D3 school is Williams College, and you can bet I'll be there a lot this winter, even if the burrito truck outside the rink isn't operating anymore.
Division 1 holds its championships in the spring, consisting first of conference championships in March, followed by regional tournaments, leading up to the annual Frozen Four in April. Much like basketball, the location of the Frozen Four changes yearly. After being in Tampa Bay this year, the 2013 edition will be held in Pittsburgh, at the Consol Energy Center. The Division 3 Championship consists of a knockout tournament, with participating teams based on their poll rankings.
The NCAA also sanctions women's college hockey. A fair amount of schools with Division 1 teams field a women's side, with the additions of Syracuse University and Lindenwood. You can find a map of top level women's teams here.
Outside of the NCAA, there is also the American Collegiate Hockey Association, which covers many schools who don't have the budgets to compete on a Division 1 or 3 level. These schools do not offer athletic scholarships for hockey. The ACHA's website covers the association in more detail including lists of all participating colleges and universities.
I'm talking about the Kontinental Hockey League here, people. One of the top leagues in the world, talent-wise, they've slowly been stealing a few NHL-quality players over the past few years. During the last NHL lockout, several NHLers spent the season playing in Russia. The Kazan Ak-Bars (snow leopards) fielded a team including Vinnie Lecavalier, Dany Heatley, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Morozov (who is now the team's captain), Michael Nylander, Slava Kozlov, Nikolai Khabibulin, and the late Ruslan Salei.
Fire up your favorite steaming website, maybe learn a few words of Russian, and watch the KHL. The thing that's keeping this league going strong is that most of the teams are run by guys who've made their billions through oil, so they won't be afraid to throw big money deals at current NHLers.
You may also be able to watch a few games on television if you have NBC's Universal Sports network, or buy a package through ViaNet TV and stream games on your computer.
The KHL is bound to be interesting this year. As mentioned earlier, there should be an influx of NHL-based players joining teams on one year deals. This season also marks the introduction of two central European teams to the league, HC Slovan Bratislava from Slovakia, and HC Lev Praha from the Czech Republic. HC Donbass, a team based in Shaktar, Ukraine, will also be joining the league. For me, the most interesting story coming into the 2012-13 KHL season will be that of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. After the entire team was killed in a tragic plane crash en route to the first game of the season last year, they fielded their youth team in Russia's second division. 2012-13 marks the return of Lokomotiv to the KHL. They are already filling out a competitive roster, and have signed up former NHLers Viktor Kozlov, Niklas Hagman, Staffan Kronwall, Curtis Sanford, Sami Lepisto, and Vitaly Vishnevsky. They also will have former Hurricanes coach and Whalers player Tom Rowe behind the bench as head coach for this season.
KHL rules allow for five non-Russian players per team. In addition, a new rule will allow each team to sign 3 current NHL players in the event of a lockout, but two of the three must be Russian. None of the three NHL players will count towards the salary cap. Note, however, that this only applies to Russian teams. I think I'd need further explanation than this Puck Daddy article, but it seems that Lev Praha, Dinamo Riga, HC Barys, Slovan, HC Donbass, and Dinamo Minsk will have free reign over the other 20 teams to sign whoever they want.
3) American Hockey League
The NHL's farm system starts off first and foremost with the American Hockey League. The AHL started in 1936 as a merging of the first International Hockey League and the Can-Am League. Today, the AHL has eaten yet another league called the International Hockey League (you may remember it from such things as the 1990s), and now contains 30 teams, each of which is affiliated with a single NHL club. The league is based out of Springfield, MA, and has teams based mostly in the eastern half of the continent, with the exception of the Oklahoma City Oilers, Abbotsford (BC) Heat, San Antonio Rampage, Texas Stars, and Houston Aeros.
The level of hockey you'll see if you go to an AHL game is pretty high-level. It's a good bet that you'll see more than a few of these guys playing for your favorite NHL team within a couple of years. A night out at the game is usually a pretty inexpensive outing (for my local Albany Devils, the most expensive seats are $19), and the teams try to make it a family-friendly experience. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are a few local rivalries that can develop, and make for very competetive games. If you can't find a local team, you may be able to watch games on TV via regional sports networks. Most teams also broadcast games on local radio stations. The AHL offers a streaming video/audio subscription service called AHL Live.
It's also safe to say that in the event of a lockout, you'll see some NHL players joining their AHL affiliates. During the 2004 lockout, I saw Patrice Bergeron play for the Providence Bruins about 5-6 times between trips to Albany and Springfield, and also cheered for some Zach Parise kid that was playing for the then Albany River Rats.
Of course, the AHL is also home to some colorful teams. Did you know that there are not one, but TWO teams named the Admirals? The Norfolk Admirals are the defending Calder Cup champions, and the Milwaukee Admirals are one of the coolest looking teams in hockey, period. You also have the Hershey Bears, who have been in the league since its founding. They've recently returned to their roots with deep brown, white and cream colored uniforms, and trust me, you'll like what you see this season.
4) The Minors
Peter and Brandon have touched on this quite often on the podcasts, mostly talking about the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones and Fort Wayne Komets. The ECHL pops up on the NHL's ladder, one step under the AHL. The league started off in 1988 as the East Coast Hockey League, and as it expanded, simply changed its name to "ECHL". Although concentrated primarily in the midwest and southeast, the ECHL also features 4 teams in California, and a handful of others in five western states and the mid-Atlantic region. 20 teams are affiliated with teams in the NHL (with 6 ECHL franchises having a pair of affiliates), while three teams (Alaska, Bakersfield and Las Vegas) are independent. You may recognize some of these teams from the old IHL, or other old-school minor league teams, such as Fort Wayne, the Orlando Solar Bears, San Francisco Bulls, and Utah Grizzlies.
The Central Hockey League is probably on-par skills-wise with the ECHL, and features 10 teams which cut across the geographic middle of the country, from Illinois to Arizona. 3 CHL teams are affiliated with NHL clubs, while the Missouri Mavericks are a feeder club for members of the AHL's Chicago Wolves that aren't under contract with the Canucks. A little confusing, but then again it is minor league hockey, didn't you learn anything from watching Slap Shot?
Actually, if you were a fan of Slap Shot, the Federal League or the Southern Professional Hockey League might be up your alley. The hockey is a bit rough, and fighting is plenty. These two leagues are unaffiliated with any NHL organizations, and operate at a level below the CHL or ECHL. The Federal League covers the northeastern part of the country with six teams. Worth noting, the Williamsport (PA) Outlaws will be playing their entire home schedule outside this season, at a rink built inside of a single-A baseball team's stadium. Don't forget your coat!
The SPHL is based mostly in the southeastern United States, and features 9 teams in 6 states. They do have some of hockey's stranger named teams, such as the Mississippi River Kings, Fayetteville FireAntz (always with the Z), and Pensacola Ice Flyers.
But Shane, you say, I'm Canadian! What about me?
What about you? You're Canadian. You live in a country FULL of junior hockey. And you have curling! And mostly likely, if you're Canadian and you're reading this, you PLAY hockey. Plus, you have a few AHL teams. You'll be fine. PS: send me some poutine!
If you can't go to AHL, ECHL, CHL, SPHL, or Federal League hockey, and you don't have a nearby college team? Go buy NHL '13 when it comes out! The demo is already available, and if you haven't played a hockey game in a while, you can revert to "classic" controls based on EA's NHL '94. Chances are though, if none of these are options for you, you most likely live somewhere sunny. Go play street hockey or roller hockey. Or go support youth hockey in your community. The NHL may not be around, but it doesn't mean you can't find some decent hockey to fill the void.
If you have no nearby teams, and it's not sunny? I'd bet you live in the northwestern part of America. You don't really have a lot of hockey in your area, and it somewhat surprises me. I can now see why Seattleites want an NHL team. There are a few WHL junior teams in Washington, as well as Portland, though.
Of course, if all else fails, start getting up early on Saturday mornings and watch the English Premier League. Soccer's pretty rad.