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Volume 20 No. 42
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Lockout not only factor in AHL gains

The American Hockey League has seen a 12 percent increase in attendance during the first five weeks of its season — a good number, but not strong enough to declare that the NHL lockout has been a boon for the top minor hockey league in North America.

“The numbers are close to where we thought they would be,” said AHL Commissioner David Andrews. “We’re seeing a good jump where our franchises are close to NHL cities. We’re up slightly almost across the board just about everywhere else.”

When measured against last season’s first five weeks of the regular season, average attendance among the AHL’s 30 teams is up, to 5,291 from 4,720, but some of the numbers from this season are a bit skewed. For example, the Bridgeport (Conn.) Sound Tigers, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, gave away free tickets to a pair of games on Nov. 3-4 as a civic gesture. The near-capacity crowds in Bridgeport lifted the Sound Tigers’ average to 7,650, third-best in the league and up from 5,461 at the same point a year ago.

Some gates suggest that hockey has been missed in a few NHL markets. A game played in Montreal’s Bell Centre on Nov. 9 between the Hamilton Bulldogs (the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate) and the Syracuse Crunch drew 18,582 fans. The Bulldogs’ average of 7,353 was fourth-best in the league and more than double their mark of 3,390 after the opening five weeks of the 2011-12 season.

Similarly, Rochester (the Buffalo Sabres’ AHL affiliate) drew almost 11,000 for a game last month against Hamilton in Buffalo’s First Niagara Center. And the Toronto Marlies have become an outlet for fans missing the parent club, the Maple Leafs. The Marlies’ average of 6,084 fans was almost twice what they were drawing early last season.

“The Leafs not playing is part of it, but it’s not the entire story,” Andrews said. “The Marlies made it to the Calder Cup Finals last year and their fan base has been growing for a while. Even when the NHL returns, we’re confident the Marlies will thrive.”

Oklahoma City’s Nugent-Hopkins helped drive ticket sales away from home.
Star wattage has been a draw in some markets. On Nov. 9-10, the Abbotsford Heat, the British Columbia-based affiliate of the Calgary Flames, hosted the Oklahoma City Barons, which feature rising, locked-out stars Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers. Both games drew sellout crowds of 7,046. But in Oklahoma City, the presence of the young stars has not seemed to matter: The Barons are averaging about 3,200 fans, roughly the same as at the start of last season.

The AHL has received added exposure on TV this season through Sportsnet, the national network in Canada, which is picking up AHL broadcasts during the NHL lockout. Andrews also points to rising metrics on the Web and in social media as evidence of a good start for the league. According to the league, Web traffic is up 84 percent and the AHL’s number of Twitter followers has almost doubled to more than 26,000 since the end of last season.

“The NHL is our partner, so we hope for its return as soon as possible,” Andrews said. “We viewed the lockout only as a chance for a brighter light to be put, however long it lasted, on our league, franchises and players. In that respect, I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far.”