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November 27, 2014

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During Olympics, minor league teams gladly borrow vacated NHL ice

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AP Photo/Kevin Rivoli

Fans witness the first-ever American League Hockey outdoor game at the New York State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Feb. 20, 2010. The Syracuse Crunch hosted the Binghamton Senators in an AHL hockey game.

WASHINGTON — The next hockey player to step onto the Verizon Center ice, on Feb. 23, will not be Alex Ovechkin or John Carlson or anyone else whom fans of the home team, the Washington Capitals, are used to seeing.

The same day, the gold medal game at the Sochi Olympics could feature Ovechkin’s Russian team or Carlson’s U.S. team. But that afternoon, the players taking the ice here will be from the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, and the Syracuse Crunch, a Tampa Bay Lightning farm team.

That game will conclude a two-week stretch, which began Saturday, of eight AHL contests in seven NHL arenas. The goal is to keep the fire burning among fans during the NHL’s Sochi-induced recess.

“It’s so people can get their hockey fix,” the Capitals’ assistant general manager, Don Fishman, said.

For minor league players, the games also will provide a rare taste of NHL atmosphere. For NHL fans, it will be a chance to see more of their favorite team’s talent pool.

For the Adirondack Phantoms, a game against Bridgeport on Feb. 22 at Wells Fargo Center, home of the parent Philadelphia Flyers, will bring the team close to its new fan base in Allentown, Pa., where the Phantoms will move after this season. It will also be a homecoming for the team, which until 2009 played across the parking lot at the since-razed Spectrum.

Chris Porreca, the Phantoms’ executive vice president, said he expected the game to sell out, just as the team did two years ago when it drew more than 45,000 fans to an outdoor game at the Phillies’ Citizens Bank Park in the same sports complex.

The AHL also is filling the NHL vacuum with a pageant in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on Tuesday and Wednesday that includes AHL All-Stars taking on Farjestad BK of Sweden. That contest will be televised across Canada on Sportsnet, in the United States on NHL Network and by the NHL teams’ broadcast partners, said Dave Andrews, the AHL commissioner.

“We play 1,140 games each season, so any special-event games that showcase the league in a different way we look forward to,” Andrews said.

Teams in other leagues and sports will also take advantage of the Olympic break. The Edmonton Oilers’ absence, for example, opened dates for the Western Hockey League’s Edmonton Oil Kings, a junior team that, like the Oilers, is based at Rexall Place and will play five of its next six games at home. The Ottawa SkyHawks, of the National Basketball League of Canada, will play four home games in six days at Canadian Tire Centre, home of the NHL’s Senators.

The AHL games on NHL ice are arranged by the teams rather than by the league offices. It is not a simple proposition.

Scheduling is complicated because many NHL arenas are home to NBA teams and host scores of concerts, circuses and other events. (Disney on Ice is taking over the rinks in Washington; Boston; San Jose, Calif.; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Ottawa, Ontario, for several days during the Olympic break, which ends Feb. 25.) Taking an AHL game on the road also means depriving season-ticket holders of one or more of the 38 home contests they had purchased. The Capitals paid Syracuse what amounts to an appearance fee to be the home team for the game against Hershey, which will nonetheless use the Capitals’ locker room.

The hope is that AHL fans will travel a reasonable distance to attend games in NHL arenas. Eric Feldman, a season-ticket holder for the Charlotte Checkers, said he planned to make the 2 1/2-hour drive to Raleigh, N.C., for one of two games this month against the Abbotsford Heat at PNC Arena, the Carolina Hurricanes’ home. “It’s fun to see your team play in a different venue,” said Feldman, vice president of a health care company.

At a Hurricanes game they attended this season, Feldman’s eldest daughter, Jessica, 16, donned a replica Checkers jersey of since-promoted defenseman Brett Bellemore. When Bellemore noticed during pregame warm-ups that she was wearing it, he tapped on the glass and gave a thumbs-up.

That, Feldman said, exemplifies the bonds that can accompany prospects to the NHL and that tie AHL fans to the parent club.

One of Bellemore’s former teammates, Checkers left wing Nicolas Blanchard, will be among those playing this weekend in Raleigh. Blanchard said he was excited to play under the brighter lights and hoped it heralded a permanent return for him.

“It’ll give me energy to show the fans that I want to go back to the club,” Blanchard said of the Hurricanes.

During the Olympic break, many younger NHL players are being temporarily sent to the AHL to receive more playing time. A few of the Capitals are expected to play for the Bears in the Feb. 23 game at Verizon Center, Fishman said.

“It’s a neat byproduct of hockey,” he said, “that, like in baseball, sometimes both future and near-term prospects can play for both the minor league affiliate and the big club in the same year and, for this unique game, in the same arena.”

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