NHL's loss could once again be Hockey East's gain

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NHL's loss could once again be Hockey East's gain

Boston University hockey coach Jack Parker doesnt especially remember packed houses for Terriers hockey games during the last NHL lockout in 2004-05.

Thats probably because Terriers hockey has always been kind of a big deal on their Commonwealth Ave. campus, and the Scarlet-and-White crazed BU hockey fans have always packed the house.

How did the last lockout impact the BU hockey program? The detail Parker remembers most was the school's star-studded alumni game. New York Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro was there, carrying the puck up the ice like a forward from his place between the pipes, attempting to score goals. Tony Amonte, Mike Grier, Chris Drury, Tom Poti, Shawn Bates, Jay Pandolfo and Joe Sacco were also among the accomplished BU alums that showed up for the benefit game with the NHL just entering a year-long hibernation that year.

Weve always drawn well. It might have affected other schools with bigger crowds than usual, said Parker. I can tell you that it drastically affected our alumni game. I think we lost 9-2 and Ricky DiPietro kept trying to score goals from his net by carrying the puck out. We dont have an alumni game scheduled this year, but I probably should have done one if wed known there was going to be another lockout.

On a more serious note Parker guessed that no NHL will mean more TV face time for the NCAA hockey programs built in New England.

We have our own TV package with NESN, and I think were going to have some better choices for games being broadcast if the Bruins arent playing on a Friday or Saturday night, Parker said.

Even though there won't be a repeat alumni game this season with BU alumni like Matt Gilroy, Ryan Whitney, John McCarthy and Chris Bourque, Hockey East itself may once again be an unwitting beneficiary if the NHL misses significant time due to the lockout.

Programs like BU and Boston College wont see much of a bounce because theyre well-established programs with their own rabid following. But theres a reason Hockey East last sold out both nights of the Hockey East tournament at TD Garden in 2004-05 when the NHL was on a season-long hiatus.

Theyve sold out one night or the other during the two-night tournament in the seven seasons since, but that was the last year college hockey filled the Gardens seats to capacity for two straight nights.

Hockey East commissioner and Harvard alum Joe Bertagna is a firm believer there still isnt a very significant cross-over between pro hockey fans and college hockey fans. The lockout gives those NHL hockey fans the chance to feed their hockey hunger this fall and winter with college games.

It also arguably gives hockey fans a chance to view the game in its purest form.

Sure there wont be the blood and guts glory of NHL fights or the elite playmaking skills of a Sidney Crosby-type player on display -- there hasnt been an offensive talent like that in Hockey East since Paul Kariya playing for Maine in the early 1990s -- but every hockey fan should take in the rivalry of a Boston College-Boston University hockey game at least once. This might just be the year to do it while the TD Garden goes silent on Thursday and Saturday nights with most of the Bruins fleeing for paying puck gigs in Europe.

I dont know about nationally, but Ive always felt that the Bruins crowd and the college hockey crowd dont overlap all that much, said Bertagna. Maybe with more of the college hockey players in the pros that dynamic has changed a little, but when I was growing up they were two very different crowds.

The New England breed of hockey fan is going to be starved for hockey once October and November roll on without the NHL, and both Division 1 college hockey and the AHL should see a bump in attendance. Bertagna didnt want to be perceived as profiting on the misery of an NHL saddled by labor strife, but there is tangible evidence his league will gain some fans this season.

Bertagna further indicated both NESN and NBC Sports are going to be looking for additional programming if there are no NHL games until mid-December at the earliest.

I dont want to seem eager to capitalize on somebody elses misfortune because we are partners with TD Garden, and I can feel for what theyre going through, said Bertagna. But having said that I can see two ways the lockout could affect us . . . especially if its long. I think both NESN and the NBC Sports will be looking for other programming, and theyre already doing our games to an extent. It would be a natural place to look for more college hockey.

The reality is the last time we sold out the building on both nights of the Hockey East tournament was the last time there was a lockout. Weve had good crowds, 14,000-15,000, but that was the last time we banged both nights out. I think it was because those other parallel hockey fans that dont usually come to our games hadnt been in to Causeway Street all year. They were hungry for hockey at that point, and we were able to provide them with a good event at the Garden.

That could mean an expanded TV schedule for Div. 1 college hockey as well as greater exposure for a college sport thats been woefully under-promoted through the years.

Cory Schneider, Brian Boyle, Chris Bourque, Andrew Alberts, Daniel Winnik, Ryan Shannon, Jimmy Howard and Stephan Gionta all starred for Hockey East during that 2004-05 lockout season in an excellent showcase of future NHL careers. That same level of quality player will be in Hockey East again this season skating for Boston College, Boston University and the eight other schools making up whats arguably the best college hockey conference in the country.

The quality of local college hockey coupled with the inexpensive ticket prices offer a nice alternative to those puck fans flush with Bruins tickets for games that will never actually be played. The coaches across Hockey East are hoping to see some of those unfamiliar faces in their rinks this season while Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman keep hammering out a new collective bargaining agreement.

I hope the NHL lockout ends today just like I hope the referee lockout ends in the NFL, said Merrimack hockey coach Mark Dennehy. But were also very excited and if we can occupy some pro hockey fans in the meantime then were happy to do that as well.

There are people that dont cross over -- theyre more pro hockey fans than college hockey fans. College hockey is one of those sports where you come to it once and you can really get hooked. In these difficult economic times its definitely more fiscally affordable than the NHL. The students in the crowd and the culture of college hockey bring things to the arena that youll never see at a pro hockey rink.

The sad fact is NHL fans wont be truly happy until logic and reason prevails in the CBA negotiations between the players and the league.

But, just as was the case in 2004-05, there are hockey alternatives locally for the discerning fan. Perhaps the most effective message from the NHL fan base would be to simply move on to something else like Hockey East, and show stingy NHL owners just how easily they could be replaced if they dont get their act together.

Morning Skate: Sidney Crosby has been a good ambassador as the face of his NHL generation

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Morning Skate: Sidney Crosby has been a good ambassador as the face of his NHL generation

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while wishing everybody a safe and relaxing Memorial Day weekend. 

*Apparently Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette has yet to try Nashville’s hot chicken despite his time behind the Preds bench. It’s okay, I have yet to try it either in my handful of visits to Music City. 

*Good stuff from PHT writer and FOH (Friend of Haggs) Jason Brough. Apparently it wasn’t so easy to make Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed when it came time for director Doug Liman to cut Swingers together

*Sidney Crosby cares about the history and the issues of the game, and has been a good ambassador as the face of his NHL generation despite the hate that always comes with such responsibility. 

*Puck Daddy examines Crosby’s performance in the playoffs, and the odds of him winning another Conn Smythe Trophy. 

*The Penguins have made it to the Stanley Cup Final without Kris Letang for their playoff run, and that’s an amazing accomplishment. 

*Erik Karlsson said that he will be tending to his injured foot next week, and expects a full recovery for next season after a brilliant run with his Ottawa Senators

*Larry Brooks again rails against the Stanley Cup playoff structure and it’s relation to an “absurd regular season.” Say what you will, but the fact the Penguins are there for a second straight season shoots down some of the absurdity stuff in my mind. The best team from the East is where they should be and they did it without Kris Letang to boot. 

*Chicago Blackhawks prospect Alex Debrincat is confident his abilities will translate to the NHL despite his size after taking home honors as the best player in junior hockey this season. 

*For something completely different: Apparently there’s a hard core comic book geek gripe that “The Flash” is burning through bad guys too quickly. This would make sense if they couldn’t revisit these bad guys at any point, but they absolutely can go back to a big bad like Grodd anytime they want. 

Playoff run ends for Providence Bruins, but some promising signs

Playoff run ends for Providence Bruins, but some promising signs

It was the longest run that the P-Bruins have had in a few years and another unmistakable sign that the future is brightening for the Black and Gold, but the Bruins AHL affiliate has ended their playoff push in the Calder Cup semi-finals. 

The Providence Bruins fell by a 3-1 score to the Syracuse Crunch on Saturday night to lose to the Crunch in five games when the best-of-seven series was set to return to Providence this coming week. The P-Bruins had vanquished the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins and Hershey Bears in the first two rounds of the Calder Cup playoffs before finally exiting against Syracuse. 

Though it’s over, it’s clear some of the Bruins prospects made a nice step forward over the second half of the AHL season and then into the Calder Cup playoffs. With the Calder Cup Finals yet to start, B’s forward prospect Danton Heinen stands as the second-leading playoff scorer in the entire AHL with nine goals and 18 points in 17 playoff games after really struggling in the first half of his first pro season while bouncing back and forth between the NHL and the AHL. 

This could bode well for the skilled Heinen and his hopes to make the leap to the NHL in the near future after a stellar collegiate career at the University of Denver. AHL journeymen-types Wayne Simpson and Jordan Szwarz were the next two top scorers for the P-Bruins in the playoff run, but Jake DeBrusk had a strong playoff season as well while popping in six goals in 17 games. DeBrusk led all Providence players with his 54 shots on net in the 17-game playoff run for Providence, and he headlined a group that included B’s prospects Ryan Fitzgerald, Zach Senyshyn, Matt Grzelcyk, Peter Cehlarik (who succumbed to shoulder surgery during the playoffs), Emil Johansson and Robbie O’Gara all getting some vital playoff experience. 

Both Heinen and DeBrusk will be strong candidates for jobs on the wing with the Boston big club when training camp opens in the fall after strong showings in the postseason. 

On the goaltending side, Zane McIntyre was solid for the P-Bruins at times while in 16 of their 17 playoff games with a .906 save percentage. But it was Malcolm Subban that was playing at the very end of the playoff run for Providence and featured a sterling .937 save percentage in the four AHL playoff games that he appeared in this spring after an up-and-down regular season. McIntyre had an .857 save percentage and 4.37 goals against average in the final series against Syracuse, and looked a little spent like many of the other P-Bruins players once they’d unexpectedly made it to the third round of the AHL postseason.  

The only unfortunate part of Providence’s run is that newly signed youngsters Charlie McAvoy and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson couldn’t be a part of it after signing and then appearing in NHL games following a cut-off date for AHL playoff rosters. Both missed on an experience that could have been very conducive for their professional development, and uncovered a wrinkle in the NHL/AHL transaction process that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for a developmental league.