HOCKEY Minors flooded with NHL refugees

Minor league teams see the NHL lockout as a big opportunity.
HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. (AP) -- With season tickets five rows behind the Chicago Blackhawks' bench, Rich Steineke got to see all the hockey he wanted.
Now that the NHL has canceled its season, though, he's looking for something to fill the void. And the minor league Chicago Wolves are the next best thing.
"I think I'll go to a lot [of Wolves games]," Steineke said. "More than likely."
He's not the only one. Minor league teams such as the Wolves see an opportunity to grow their business -- and an obligation to keep the sport alive.
"We're the best league playing in North America, and we have to keep it that way," said Kevin Cheveldayoff, the Wolves' general manager. "I just can't stress enough the importance upon us to keep the fires burning, so to speak, for hockey in the United States and Canada."
The rosters
Minor league rosters are filled with NHL refugees this season. Chris Chelios and his Detroit Red Wings teammates Derian Hatcher and Kris Draper signed with the Motor City Mechanics of the United Hockey League earlier this month.
On Friday, Red Wings defenseman Jason Woolley signed with the UHL's Flint Generals while Montreal Canadiens forward Steve Begin joined the American Hockey League's Hamilton Bulldogs.
More importantly, though, teams like the AHL's Wolves are the NHL's best chance to appease disgruntled fans.
"We always try to be an ambassador for the game, no matter what," said John Anderson, a former NHL player who now coaches the Wolves. "We want fans to like hockey."
The Wolves began preparing for the lockout last spring, offering season tickets with the promise that the money could be refunded if the NHL played this year. The Wolves are now making that same offer for the 2005-06 season, offering season tickets for a $12 deposit and a money-back guarantee if the NHL starts on time next fall.
In the first two days of the promotion, the Wolves got nearly 100 deposits.
Other AHL teams have moved games to NHL arenas. The Bridgeport, N.Y., franchise, the Islanders' AHL affiliate, played its home game Friday night at the Nassau Coliseum. The Edmonton Road Runners play their games at the Rexall Place, the same arena as the Oilers, and lead the AHL in total attendance.
Attendance rises
The efforts appear to be paying off. AHL attendance has increased almost 3 percent, to an average of 5,751 fans this year from 5,594 last season. Edmonton and Chicago are third and fourth in average attendance and Philadelphia, another NHL city, is seventh.
"We've seen an increase in attendance. We've seen an increase in interest," said Adam Fox, the Wolves' executive vice president for business operations.
"You can make the case that that's the result of no NHL games being played this year. Only time will tell if that's the case."
The Wolves already have shown that minor league teams can be a viable alternative to the NHL. Playing at the Allstate Arena near O'Hare Airport, the Wolves attract NHL-size crowds on the weekends -- there were 14,900 for their game last Saturday -- and they outdrew the Blackhawks on a Sunday afternoon last year.
The Blackhawks had 12,177 fans at the United Center for that late-February game against Florida. That same afternoon, the Wolves drew a crowd of 12,938.
The priciest ticket for a Wolves game is $40, but the majority of seats are just $16. Compare that to Blackhawks tickets, which run from $15 all the way up to $250.

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