Well, the September 15th deadline has passed and the NHL has locked out its players for the third time since 1994. All three under Gary Bettman (make your own three strikes you’re out joke, even thought it’s probably already been told). But I’m here as your friendly neighborhood prospect geek/guru/whatever to give you some alternatives to help get you through this troubling time. As a reference, if I say how far away something is in this piece, it’s the distance from Nationwide Arena according to Googlemaps. I figure I would use a place we all know as a starting point.
Let’s start off with the teams affiliated with the Blue Jackets. The team’s AHL affiliate is the Springfield Falcons of Springfield, Massachusetts. The Falcons will have most of the team’s top prospects including Ryan Johansen and Cam Atkinson on the roster if the lockout continues past opening day. I’m not gonna lie, watching the Falcons will be tough as the team’s closest game is in Hershey, Pennsylvania (a short 386 mile trek) when they play the Hershey Bears on December 22nd. Some of you are thinking “hey wait isn’t there a AHL team in Cleveland?” more on them later, but the Falcons don’t play the Monsters because Lake Erie is in the Western Conference if that makes sense to anyone – perhaps they used the same geography guidelines as the NHL. For updates on the Falcons, some not only recommended but required follows on twitter are Falcons play by play man Mike Kelly (@MikeFalconsAHL) and Springfield uberfan, who is as good as any writer for information @Katyloveshockey.
For Jackets-affiliated hockey that is somewhat closer, the Jackets’ (and St Louis Blues) newest affiliate is the Evansville IceMen (apparently you capitalize the M). The IceMen are making their ECHL debut after playing in the Central Hockey League since 2010. Evansville is just bit closer than the closest Falcons game I mentioned above at 328 miles but you’ll have more options to see whoever gets sent down there (quick note the CBJ have barely used their ECHL affiliate the last two seasons) with the Icemen playing 33 of its 72 games against Cincinnati, Fort Wayne and Toledo – all division opponents. More on them later.
OHIO MINOR LEAGUE TEAMS
Along with the Blue Jackets, Ohio is home to three minor league teams. Those three teams are the Lake Erie Monsters, Cincinnati Cyclones and the Toledo Walleye. Starting up north you have the Lake Erie Monsters. The Monsters are the Colorado Avalanche’s AHL affiliate. Some of the Avs top prospects playing in Cleveland are defensmen Tyson Barrie, Stefan Elliott and Cameron Gaunce and goaltender Calvin Pickard along with 2012 pick Mitchell Heard who could play in Cleveland or be returned to the OHL. Reigning Calder Trophy winner Gabriel Landeskog could also be suiting up for Cleveland. Moving West, we have the Toledo Walleye. I’ll level with you folks, if you go to a Walleye game you must be desperate for hockey. I’m not saying the team is bad – it’s just that after the game, your eyes might hurt watching all those Red Wing and Blackhawks prospects. That’s right, the Fish are affiliated with two of the Jackets biggest rivals. For you old school Chill fans, the Walleye are the old Toledo Storm but they took two years off so that their home rink, the Huntington Center, could be completed.
The Walleye are coached by Nick Vitucci who is the only professional goalie to score a goal on a goalie (fluky – basically it was an own goal but the team’s goalie was the last player to touch it giving Vitucci credit). The IceMen play Toledo 10 times with the games in Toledo being on November 3 December 15 January 27 and March 3 and 20.
Finishing our trek throughout the minor pro ranks of the Buckeye state we head down I-75 to Cincinnati the home of the Cyclones. The Cincinnati Cyclones have won two of the last five Kelly Cup Championships. The Cyclones actually have had more ties to the Jackets than either of the other Ohio teams with ex Jacket Andrew Cassels having been an assistant coach and current Jacket (or probably Falcon if you’re reading this) Ryan Russell playing 12 games there in the 07-08 season scoring the series clinching goal in the conference final. As the IceMen’s closest divisional rival, the teams will face off 12 times this year with seven of those games being in Cincinnati. Those games are on November 15, 28 and 30 December 5 January 25 and March 9 and 30.
OHIO COLLEGE PROGRAMS
Moving onto the college ranks, Ohio is home to three Division 1 programs with one of those being one of the top programs in the country. The three schools are Bowling Green, Miami and Ohio State. These three schools have combined for four Frozen Four appearances and one National Title but the team with the title may shock you. The team with the title is the Bowling Green Falcons who won it in 1984 when coached by current Boston College coach Jerry York. It’s been a rough stretch for Bowling Green lately – not qualifying for the NCAA tournament since 1990 and only making it past the second round of the CCHA tournament three times in that span. Bowling Green’s history does include two Hobey Baker award winners and one retired NHL star. Baker award winners include Capitals GM George McPhee who won the award in 1982 when he had 80 points in 40 games and ex-Jacket Brian Holzinger who won it in 1995. The retired star is ex-LA King/Colorado Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake. The Falcons have eight games against Blue Jackets prospects this season including four games against TJ Tynan and Notre Dame with the games on December and January 15 being in Bowling Green. The other four games are road games facing off against Thomas Larkin and Colgate in October, and then playing Kevin Lynch and Michigan on November 21 and January 8.
The Miami RedHawks have become a powerhouse since alum Enrico Blasi took over in 1999 winning more than 20 games in 10 of his 13 seasons including seven straight seasons with at least 23 wins. The Hawks have qualified for the NCAA tournament in eight of the last nine years including playing in the Frozen Four in 09 and 10, losing in the Final to Boston University in 2009. This will be the first time in four seasons the RedHawks won’t have a Blue Jackets prospect as both Will Weber and Trent Vogelhuber graduated and signed pro contracts. Miami will have a young team this year having only eight seniors and juniors and 18 sophomores and freshmen including all three goaltenders. One of those freshmen will be Dublin native Sean Kuraly who dominated the recent US World Juniors camp. Miami has six games against Jackets prospects including a season opening series against Thomas Larkin and Colgate on October 12-13 in Oxford. Two weeks later the Hawks will travel to Ann Arbor to face Kevin Lynch and the Wolverines. Miami will also play two games against TJ Tynan and Notre Dame with the first being in Oxford on February 15 with game two of the series being in a much cooler venue (sorry Goggin Ice Arena) but game two of the series will be played in Chicago at Soldier Field as part of the first ever Hockey City Classic.
Last but not least is our closest option for hockey, The Ohio State University. The Bucks will play 15 home games (one being an exhibition against a school from Canada) and only three of those conflict with CBJ home games. The Bucks are coming off a real Jekyll and Hyde season going 14-4-1 (tie being a shootout win) and being 2nd in the country to finishing 15-15-5. OSU had one Frozen Four appearance in 1998 and has qualified for the tournament six times, the last time being in 2009. The Buckeyes will play six games against Blue Jackets prospects opening the season in Duluth, Minnesota facing Drew Olson and the Bulldogs then in February, two Jacket prospects come to town. First on February 1-2, TJ Tynan and the Fighting Irish come to town (on the 2nd is supposed to be a CBJ home game though) then on the 22 and 23 Kevin Lynch and Michigan invade the Schott which are always fun games (apparently the two schools don’t like each other who knew?). I asked Jeff Svoboda and Justin Boggs what kind of bump in attendance OSU received during the last lockout – neither could give me exact numbers, but both said it was a fair boost with Justin saying OSU drew a few crowds over 10,000 in the second half of their season. Both also said this was when OSU had one of its best team’s ever. One other thing, this is the last season the Bucks will be in the CCHA as it will be the league’s last season. All of the league’s teams become members of one of four other leagues including a brand new one (Big Ten) next season. Another option on Campus is the OSU women’s team which plays in the OSU Ice Rink which is right next to St John’s Arena. If you haven’t ever give a women’s game a shot (plus games are free!), it’s more finesse hockey with little physical play (not saying anything insulting ladies, just saying how its different).
SURROUNDING STATE OPTIONS
There are just a few other options if this thing goes long and one or more of the previous options isn’t enough for you. The closest of all these is the Fort Wayne Komets. Fort Wayne is doing the same as Evansville this season making the jump from the CHL to the ECHL. The Komets have a rich history being founded in 1952 playing in four different leagues winning nine championships including three straight from 2007-2010 while in the IHL and last year’s CHL Championship. The Komets and Icemen is a bit of a rivalry: a game preview from last season showed that the teams had 25 fights in 10 games. Of course this was in the CHL, a league in which few teams have NHL affiliates (unlike the ECHL). The IceMen play in Fort Wayne six times on October 20, November 9 and 17, February 16 March 13 and 17.
Staying in Indiana but to the northwest is the home of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and one of the Jacket’s top prospects, junior TJ Tynan. Tynan is one of the focal points of the Irish’s offensive attack and is only five points away from 100 in his collegiate career. Notre Dame will play 7 games against teams with a Blue Jackets prospect including its opening weekend series against Minnesota-Duluth on October 8 and 9 also playing four games against Michigan, away on November 15 and 16 also playing at Minnesota on January 5.
Moving to our neighbor to the North, Michigan, we have the Plymouth Whalers where 2012 draft pick Gianluca Curcuruto was traded to. The Whalers were one of the OHL’s top teams last year losing in the conference final.
NHL fans won’t be the only ones affected if the lockout cancels the Winter Classic as the AHL, OHL and NCAA all had events and games scheduled. These events may not be cancelled as they were gonna be at Detroit’s Comerica Park and not Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. These events include the Great Lakes Invitational that includes Michigan, Michigan State, Michigan Tech and Western Michigan and a OHL doubleheader that includes Windsor playing Saginaw and Plymouth playing London a game that includes a CBJ prospect on each team (this will be the first time ever the OHL takes it outside). I’d like to note tickets for the OHL games are fairly cheap (I know because I have mine already). The only true negative is you’ll miss a Jackets home game (if the lockout goes this long) and well, the whole going to Detroit thing.
To the East is Pennsylvania, home to two AHL teams, the Hershey Bears I mentioned earlier and the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins, but the real reason to go to Pennsylvania is to Dansk. Sorry I had to. 239 miles away is where one of the Jackets top goalie prospects will be playing. Oscar Dansk will be suiting up for the Erie Otters this season and from everything I’ve read he’ll be playing the majority of the games. Other than Dansk, the Otters have a player that was granted exceptional status (The John Tavares Rule) allowing him to play in the OHL as a 15-year-old, Connor McDavid who’s coming off a 209 point season in 88 games (I know it’s midgets but still. And yes you read that right).
There you have it folks multiple ways to get us through this hopefully quick NHL lockout. Don’t let a lockout stop you – go out and see different brands of hockey. As always you can follow me on twitter to keep up to date on all the Jackets prospects and if I have to, I’ll try and keep an eye on the Jackets playing overseas.