As the NHL and the NHLPA continue to avoid being in the same room as one another, hockey fans have begun to accept that NHL hockey will, almost unthinkably, not begin on time for the second time in a decade. Shell-shocked, the dejected masses are frantically looking for a 7-10p.m. replacement. "That's okay, I'll just do other things with my evening, like watch repeats of Law & Order! And you thought I'd come crawling back, NHL. Shows you..." Many have settled on the American Hockey League, hockey's Triple-A. Indeed, it is a sensible choice. One can cheer for their organization's development, while watching their team's young stars pitted against those from around the league. Who would have imagined that Edmonton's hard work for the future and stockpiling prospects would all come to fruition in one season of Oklahoma City hockey? Yet, like many Major League fans towards Triple-A, most hockey fans know the highlights of their AHL team's roster, but are mostly unfamiliar with it's day-to-day ups and downs. They have likely never watched more than a playoff game. Luckily, I have. So, if you count yourself among those looking to spend the season watching 'the A', you might want to consult my bluntly honest guide below. As you'll learn, it may not be the best of the best, but it comes with a unique charm.
Watching the Games:
- Have fast internet and a good monitor. All AHL games are streamed by 'AHL LIVE', a seriously humbler version of its NHL equivalent, but from my experience, fairly functional. That being said, the readiness of their servers for an influx of desperate NHL fans is totally up in the air. And I can almost guarantee they are not prepared for the ire and ridicule that will inevitably flow their way if these streams stall with buffering and choppy quality.
- Be prepared to stare forlornly at your flat-screen television, wonder of technological advancement that it is. This past summer, I spent the amount of a week-long all-inclusive vacation on a new television and accompanying fancy cable package. Sports! All in HD! I can rewind all I want (I never have, but it's all about being able to)! Upon reflection, I should have waited. I wouldn't advise purchasing a video or HDMI cable to plug into your TV either, the resolution likely isn't good enough. It certainly isn't high definition.
- Be prepared to witness a true feat of innovation: the radio stream synced to the live arena feed. What this means is that your viewing pleasure is saved from the monotony of video commercials, which is replaced by the monotony of audio commercials while the arena camera bounces around the building. So, you could be hearing about Binghamton auto financing, but actually viewing a bunch of fans having a dance-off. Best of both worlds, really. As for the radio itself, it may be a little garbled or off by a half-beat, and you may only have access to one of the two feeds (normally the home one).
- Your wallet will lose some weight. They haven't released this year's rates, but the whole season will likely be around the same figure as a stitched jersey. Not vintage, but still. The site is currently offering any archived game from last season for only $3.99. Many people will be tempted to hold off on buying the full season unless they know the full NHL season will be cancelled, but at last year's per-game charge of 6.99, that might be folly. Take note: the AHL doesn't have fair-weather fans.
- AHL LIVE has a feature where you can have a conversation with other fans during the game. So, if you're into over-use of emoticons, I guess that will interest you. Otherwise, get a double monitor to hang out on Silver Seven during the games.
- If you're like me, some of your favorite NHL games are scheduled on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It helps to break up the week nicely. Get over it. AHL games are most often scheduled around the weekend. Going to "ride the bus" with the farm team is not just a cliche, it's a big part of playing in the AHL. Naturally then, many of the games against teams that are a farther drive are back-to-back. Getting from upstate New York to Virginia for a game against the Norfolk Admirals? Yeah, don't count on the team pitching for a charter flight.
- The stress put on having Friday/Saturday matches can leave a fan's (and, undoubtedly, a player's) head spinning. Especially when there are back-to-back-to-back games, a grueling part of a schedule best left for NHL '13, which employs that tactic once you advance a year in the 'Be a GM Mode'. Needless to say, it is a grind for players, a serious test of endurance and conditioning, and a lot to look back on as a fan. One could see a victory on Saturday sandwiched by losses on Friday and Sunday, then have no game until the next Friday, leaving time to critically consider the whirlwind of positives and negatives the team displayed.
- Forget about rivalries in the NHL. Things are different here. It isn't a story of Montreal and Toronto when you're in the AHL-- Ottawa plays the Hamilton Bulldogs (Montreal) and Toronto Marlies (Toronto, obviously) twice this season. This is a league of intra-conference play, with some added emphasis within divisions.
- The AHL, like the NHL, has two conferences, Eastern and Western, with three five-team divisions in each. The divisions in the Eastern Conference are: Atlantic, Northeast, East. In the Western Conference: the North, Midwest and South. Throw out your preconceptions of where a team is going to be: Binghamton is in the East of the East, Toronto is in the North of the West.
- A brief aside: for a stint last year, with Binghamton occupying the league's basement, they somehow still shellacked the Adirondack Phantoms. Consistently. I can't completely explain why-- the Phantoms finished thirteen points ahead of Binghamton in the final standings, and over .500. The B-Sens weren't so lucky, going 29-40-7. Still, in late January, Binghamton had 16 wins, 6 of them at the hands of the Adirondack Phantoms. I wouldn't be counting on such a crutch in the standings this year, what with the likes of at least Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier lending their services to the Flyers' affiliate.
- Binghamton will play the bulk of their games within the conference, facing off against two division teams, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and the Hershey Bears (Washington Capitals) ten times (rivalry, right?). They face off against the two other teams in their division, the Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Norfolk Admirals (Anaheim Ducks) eight times during the campaign. However, here's where one runs into a wall when trying to discern rhyme or reason from the schedule-makers in the league. Binghamton will play out-of-division New Jersey affiliate, the Albany Devils, nine times. They play the Worcester Sharks of the Atlantic twice and the St. John's Ice Caps of the same division make an appearance four times. Meanwhile, Binghamton plays the Providence Bruins, also of the Atlantic, zero times. I give up. But I have sent out an email to the AHL requesting a little clarification here.
- It took all the willpower I have not to link to the infamous Jim Mora "I just hope we can win another game" line. Then I ran out of willpower and told you about it, which is objectively worse than just linking it in the first place.
- The AHL playoff format is a mirror image of the NHL version. Teams who win their division are automatically ranked 1-3, and the five next best throughout the conference make the playoffs in 4-8 seeding. From thereon out, the best regular season team will play the worst-- you know this. To really know this stuff well, one has to know tie-breaking procedures. The team with the most wins gets the spot. Tied in wins? No problem! You just see who had the better of the other in their season series! Let's throw out the unlikely scenario Binghamton and Providence are tied for the eighth and final spot. No season series? Goal differential saves the day. Or ruins it, depending on which team you're a fan of.
- This used to be a more confusing system-- two years ago, when Binghamton won the Calder, there was a crossover rule, much like there is in today's CFL. That was owing to there being two divisions in each conference. With three divisions, the rule no longer exists.
- The title is a reference to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the AHL affiliate of the New York Islanders. The team plays out of Bridgeport, Connecticut, but adds the 'Sound' in homage to the Long Island Sound, according to Wikipedia. As someone who knew of the town, I read it as "the Sound Tigers of Bridgeport." A 'Sound Tiger' is not a thing. You're welcome.
- The above should be read as somewhat of a laundry list of sobering realities about cheering for a team that plays in the AHL. This is so that you understand what it's like to be a day-to-day follower and fan of a team in the second tier of North American hockey. Yet, in spite of all the potential negatives, it is professional hockey. It is played in the hours after work and school. It is made up of a contingent of players who will prove to be significant in determining the course of the Ottawa Senators. And, what with the amateurish quality of video production, there is potential for a lighter side even to crushing losses. It is much better and much more satisfying as a hockey fan, you'll find, than watching the tragic romantic comedy that is the Don Fehr/Gary Bettman Show.
- This is the first component of what will be some extensive AHL and Binghamton Senators coverage in the lead-up to the 2012-13 season. Next week, we'll take a look at the team's depth chart and projecting... stuff.