Sharks and Tigers and Bears " oh, my!
By the looks of it, the ice at the 29 destinations around the American Hockey League " outside the friendly confines of Oklahoma City " is infested with all sorts of unseemly critters and ruffians, including Pirates and even some monsters. So as the league's newest franchise prepares to usher in a new era of professional hockey here this coming fall, now is as good a time as any to check out the competition.
The AHL has been serving up the next best thing to the National Hockey League since 1936, and its lineup of established franchises is almost as impressive as the fact that 84 percent of all current NHL players initially honed their skills on AHL ice.
"As Oklahoma City will soon learn, the AHL offers up a great brand of hockey," said Jason Chaimovitch, AHL's vice president of communications. "The AHL has been and continues to be the proving ground for many of the stars at the NHL level " and that's true not only from a player standpoint, but also where many of the coaches and executives are concerned. The last seven Stanley Cups were won by former AHL head coaches."
From a geographical standpoint, the league is represented in several major North American cities, as well as in smaller markets that have long been known as traditional hockey havens in both the United States and Canada.
Since the official 2010-11 league schedule won't be released until August, the Oklahoma City Barons are not yet privy to the exact whos and whens, but three Texas teams figure to become fast rivals even before the season-opening puck is dropped in early October.
Local hockey fans should be eager to roll out the welcome mat at the newly renovated Cox Center for the Houston Aeros, San Antonio Rampage and Texas Stars (playing out of Austin suburb Cedar Park, Texas), three franchises that will be vying for the West Division title of the AHL's Western Conference, along with OKC.
While that Texas trio figures to earn instant credibility as unsavory foes, the rest of the West " including teams from Chicago, Peoria and Rockford, Ill. " have a decidedly Midwestern flavor. The lone exception are the Admirals from Milwaukee.
Chicago, Austin, Milwaukee, Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the same division?
Doesn't quite seem fair when a quick check of the North Division reveals a lineup of adversaries that include teams from Abbotsford, British Columbia, Manitoba, Lake Erie and Grand Rapids, Mich., not to mention Hamilton, Ontario and Rochester, N.Y. Besides Toronto, fans will almost certainly need to bookmark MapQuest.
But don't go making any plans to visit any of those exotic locations just yet. And definitely wait before penciling in any trips to Hartford, Conn., Albany, N.Y., Providence, R.I., or Hershey, Pa. There is a good chance the Barons might not play any number of those franchises " at least not during the regular season " despite the fact they are all battling it out for the same Calder Cup that goes to the league champion.
Logistics and travel costs will ultimately dictate where the Barons will travel and who they will play. The only thing for certain is OKC will face off with its West Division rivals on a fairly regular basis and play other teams more sporadically.
"Every team plays a balanced schedule, but the league definitely tries to maximize the regional rivalries. Much of the schedule is based on geography," said Josh Evans, Prodigal Hockey and Barons spokesman. "The scheduling process is interesting, fun and fairly labor-intensive. It actually begins in the February preceding the start of the season when we submit dates to the league. Putting ours together is a challenge."
While former OKC Blazer enthusiasts may not get to see the two-time defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears at the Cox Center " unless it's during the playoffs " they will no doubt be treated to a faster, more skilled style of hockey this fall.
As the Barons work to re-establish professional hockey as a viable commodity here again, it should be great fun to watch players try to earn their way to the NHL and a spot on the parent club Edmonton Oilers' roster.
For more information, visit www.okcbarons.com.
top photo The Hershey Bears are the two-time Calder Cup defending champs in the American Hockey League. Photo/Justsports Photography
bottom photo Coco is the Hershey Bears' mascot.