The 28-team AHL, which includes the Hartford Wolf Pack and Bridgeport Sound Tigers, was upgraded with dozens of players who otherwise would be in the NHL. Teams in Binghamton, N.Y., and Lowell, Mass., had lines filled with forwards who spent all or most of last season at hockey's highest stage. Most minor league outposts experienced similar increases in talent.
Through the games of Feb. 20, the AHL has had a 9 percent attendance spike, led by two Canadian cities - Hamilton, Ontario, and Winnipeg, Manitoba. Hamilton, which is between the NHL cities of Toronto and Buffalo, and Winnipeg, where the Moose are playing in a new building, are each up over 30 percent. The Cincinnati Mighty Ducks have had a 17 percent increase, thanks to playing three games in Anaheim, Calif., where their parent team is located. Edmonton, another NHL city that is new to the AHL, ranks third in attendance. And two other NHL cities, Chicago (over 21 percent) and Philadelphia (over 7 percent), have increased.
But the numbers have headed in the opposite direction in New England cities, especially Worcester and Hartford. Worcester, which is losing its IceCats to Peoria, Ill., after this season, is averaging 3,958 fans, 25th in the league. The Wolf Pack, which has an average attendance of 4,811, is down about 9 percent from last season's average at this time.
Bridgeport averages 5,371, which puts it in the middle of the pack. Springfield, at 3,755, is second to last in attendance.
The Wolf Pack, among six teams in the league whose attendance is down, have ticket prices ranging from $9 to $30, with $44 specials for a family of four that include food. The average cost of an NHL ticket at the start of last season was $44, with the New Jersey Devils having the highest average, $68.
Wolf Pack General Manager Jim Schoenfeld said it's difficult to explain the decline in Hartford.
"There are two trains of thought," Schoenfeld said. "Without the NHL, people thought there would be greater attention paid to the AHL because that's the best hockey you'll find right now. And the other way of thinking is people just aren't thinking hockey, period. I really don't know what the case is, whether it's one or the other or somewhere in between."
Schoenfeld acknowledged that interest in UConn's national championship basketball teams and a major spike in the following of the school's football team put a strain on the entertainment dollar in the area. Plus, Hartford is located between major league cities and some fans still resent the Whalers' leaving for North Carolina in 1997 and won't support the AHL. Others aren't interested in leaving suburbia for downtown, especially with major renovations to the Hartford Civic Center helping cause the perception of parking problems.
"A few weeks ago, we had a great promotion and a sellout on a Saturday, played a great game and won, 4-0," Schoenfeld said. "You would have thought some of those folks would have said, `Hey, that was good. I think I'll go back.' But 4,000 showed up the following week. It's hard to understand."
Despite the smaller crowds and numerous injuries, the Wolf Pack have the second-most points in the 14-team Eastern Conference and are coming off a season in which they were within a victory of the Calder Cup finals. The New York Rangers farm team knows its mission statement.
"We keep trying to do our best to ice a good product - a team that's competitive, plays an entertaining brand of hockey and competes hard every night," Schoenfeld said. "And we're going to keep trying to do our best job to develop players, do it in a winning environment and hopefully win a championship, whether the building is full or empty.
"Those who do come are thoroughly entertained and look forward to coming back," he said, "and those who haven't yet experienced it are probably missing something. We play for the people who come."
Ken Gernander, the only captain in the team's eight-year history, said that apathy could be the major problem.
"Attendance is down in most of New England, and you would think it would be just the reverse," Gernander said. "But I don't know if people are just disgruntled with pro hockey or more interested in college hockey or don't see any ESPN highlights. It seems like it's out of sight, out of mind. There's no NHL, so people aren't thinking hockey, they don't have it on the brain."
Goalie Jason LaBarbera, the AHL's Most Valuable Player last season, said it's frustrating to have a good team and fewer fans watching.
"People in the front office would obviously like to have more people in the stands, and it's always more enjoyable for the players to play in front of more people," LaBarbera said. "We don't have any control over that, but it's nice and exciting to go to places like Philadelphia, Hershey and Manchester, where there are 8,000 and 9,000 people. You have that little extra jump and feel that much more enthused. But I don't know what more we can do."