The NHL season was supposed to open Wednesday, yet there’s no Kings, no Mighty Ducks.
Hockey-hungry fans in Southern California will have other ways to satisfy their cravings during the lockout besides watching FSN’s telecasts of the 10 most memorable games in Ducks history or rummaging through the garage for a tape of the “Miracle on Manchester.”
The main hockey alternatives are the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the minor-league ECHL, and college club hockey, played by USC at Disney Ice in Anaheim and by UCLA at HealthSouth Training Center in El Segundo. Neither the Ice Dogs nor the college teams expect an attendance boom as a result of the NHL lockout, but they’re grateful for a chance to make fans aware of their existence in a crowded sports market.
“For us, it’s exposure,” said Anthony Soares, a Canadian-born lawyer who is the president of the Ice Dogs. “The key is to get the Long Beach Ice Dogs’ name out there. We’re overshadowed by the Kings and Ducks. People think hockey, and they think Kings and Ducks, but there’s good professional hockey here and it’s being played at a fraction of the cost of NHL games.
"[The lockout] isn’t good for hockey. There’s no doubt about it. But we’d be crazy not to try and take advantage of the situation.”
USC’s hockey club is in its 80th season and, like UCLA, is at the Division 2 level of the American Collegiate Hockey Assn. Both play in the Pac 8 conference, which is really the Pac 7 -- Stanford, Cal, UCLA, Oregon, USC, Washington and Washington State -- plus a startup club at Oregon State.
For Mark Wilbur, coach and general manager of USC’s hockey club and associate dean for corporate programs at USC’s business school, the NHL lockout presents a different opportunity.
“To me, it’s about exposing people, especially kids, to hockey,” Wilbur said. “It’s easier for them to connect with us than with NHL players. You come to one of our games and you’re right on top of the action and our admission -- $10 for adults and $5 for kids -- is cheaper than a movie.”
For a temporary diversion, the Kings’ top farm team, the Manchester (N.H.) Monarchs of the American Hockey League, will play the Utah Grizzlies at Staples Center on Oct. 23. The Monarchs practice in El Segundo on Oct. 21 and 22, and their game-day skate Oct. 23 will be open to the public.
Another alternative is youth hockey, with teams ranging from mite level (6 years old) to midget (18) playing at HealthSouth and Disney Ice. Both rinks usually hold kids’ tournaments around Thanksgiving and Christmas. There’s also the Junior B Valencia Vipers of the Western States Hockey League, who play at Ice Station Valencia. USC and UCLA have no future NHL stars, but players’ passion and commitment to the game are deep.
“We make it a family affair,” said Wilbur, whose 1-3 team faces Weber State on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Disney Ice. “If we’re in control of a game, I’ll grab kids from the stands and bring them into the locker room to give them an idea of what it’s like to be around hockey players. For a 9-year-old to be standing in a locker room and see a player wearing USC from head to toe, it really makes an impression.”
The next-best thing to NHL hockey is the ECHL’s Ice Dogs.
Formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League but now simply as the ECHL, the league has forged working relationships with NHL and AHL clubs, bringing into the league young players out of college and U.S. junior leagues. The ECHL has sent 255 players to the NHL, including 40 who made their debut on NHL rosters last season.
“We’ve had a market shift,” Commissioner Brian McKenna said. “We’ve lost that image as a rough-and-tumble league. We’ve improved our quality every year.”
That improvement is likely to continue this season, an offshoot of the lockout.
Twenty-two ECHL teams are affiliated with teams in the AHL or NHL. Because many NHL clubs assigned young prospects to the AHL before the lockout, AHL rosters are overflowing. Some players who can’t win spots will end up in the ECHL, raising the talent level.
The Ice Dogs, an affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, got goalie Olivier Michaud, who played 16 games in Hamilton, Canada, of the AHL last season, and forward Christian Larivee, a 2000 fourth-round draft pick. They expect to get two more Montreal-owned players.
“It’s a very tough market, especially being a nontraditional market, but if there is a year we can turn the corner, this is it,” Soares said of his team, which plays home games at Long Beach Arena.
Ice Dogs’ tickets are priced at $11, $17 and $19. They also have group rates and fundraising programs for youth organizations. They will hold an open house at the Long Beach Arena on Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, with no admission fee.
Each ECHL team operates under a salary cap of $10,000 a week, or about $500 a player. The minimum is $325 a week, but clubs pay for players’ housing. No team can have more than four veterans on its roster. A veteran is defined as a player who has played 288 or more professional games.
“Our goal is once [fans] come, they’ll see that it’s a good caliber of entertainment and great for kids,” Soares said. “When NHL hockey comes back, people will go back. But maybe instead of going to seven or eight King or Duck games, they’ll go to four or five and go to a few of our games.”