POSTED ON OCTOBER 10, 2012:
The effects of the NHL's lockout on minor league hockey
Moving furniture -- that's how Tulsa Oilers head coach Bruce Ramsay had been spending his day when I caught up with him recently.
At most any other level of professional hockey, the work being performed by Ramsay would be delegated to an assistant of some kind. But Ramsay doesn't mind. His voice emulates that of a man doing something far more meaningful and pleasant than hauling boxes or relocating lockers.
"Hockey season's coming up!" he says.
Judging by his excitement, it would seem there's no better time of the year for Ramsay.
Meanwhile, the owners of the National Hockey League's 30 teams, along with commissioner Gary Bettman, can't seem to reach any sort of compromise with the players association regarding, mainly, who gets what portion of the league's $2.27 billion pie. Negotiations about players' shares, salary caps and stipulations for guaranteed contracts have been thrust to the forefront this fall, forcing hockey to a halt at the highest organized level of the sport.
While fans in renowned U.S. hockey cities like Detroit, Chicago and Boston continue to be forced into weathering the effects of a lockout, the game continues in smaller cities through minor leagues like the NHL's triple-A association, the American Hockey League, and the Oilers' host, the Central Hockey League.
Although the current disagreement between the NHL owners and players union doesn't directly impact smaller leagues, there's no denying the collateral damage a labor dispute of such magnitude can have. Many players aspiring to move up the ranks of professional hockey may have to place their dreams on hold while minor league organizations make room for some of the sport's best.
"At the start of every training camp, usually a lot of players at our level get an opportunity to try out at the American Hockey League level," Ramsay said. "Last year I sent six or seven guys to Oklahoma City's camp; we had players in Chicago, Grand Rapids and Cleveland. The negative spin on that is, because there's no NHL, all the players are basically starting at the AHL level."
Because of this trickle-down effect, several well known NHL players have been signed by triple-A squads and subsequently created an overcrowding of talent in the AHL. The displacement of talent has reduced the chances of some younger, lesser-known players to ascend through the ranks of the sport.
"It's really eliminated opportunities for kids at our level to show their stuff at an AHL camp, so that in the future, if (the AHL teams) need players, they can get called up. It's kind of tough on the players that feel they have the potential to play at the triple-A level, because they're not going to get noticed as they would've in years past," Ramsay said.
Of course, the surplus of talent at the AHL level is sure to improve the experience for fans in the smaller markets. Already, the Oklahoma City Barons have signed young stars Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle, stars of the Barons' parent club, the Edmonton Oilers. The unfortunate side to this, however, is that when the lockout ends, many minor league teams may find themselves scrambling to fill their rosters.
"I (wouldn't) want to be in a situation where I'm left losing five or six guys that are going back up to the AHL once the (lockout) ends," said Ramsay. "I've recruited and want to have my team set for the whole year, even once the (lockout) ends."
This year's labor dispute in the NHL marks the third work stoppage the league has seen in two decades. The last time the NHL was forced to cancel games was during the 2004-05 season, when the entire season was scrapped as the result of a 10-month lockout. Prior to that, the NHL also had a lengthy lockout during the 1994-95 season that resulted in a cancellation of nearly half the schedule.
Hundreds employed by NHL franchises have seen their workweeks significantly decreased, and many have been laid-off altogether as a result of the current labor dispute. In minor league cities like Tulsa, however, the effects of the sport's largest association should prove to be minimal.
"I was in Tulsa when there was a work stoppage back in the '90s," said Tim Saunders, former Oilers employee and current broadcaster for the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers. "Other than not being able to watch games on television, as long as the local team was playing, I don't know that it was felt all that much."
With no apparent end to the lockout in sight, the future of this NHL season remains unknown. Already the first two weeks of the regular season have been cancelled -- a total of 82 games -- and neither side involved has shown much willingness to compromise. Essentially, the game of hockey has taken a backseat to corporate politics.
Right now, there is no talk of slap shots or one-timers in the NHL. Not a word has been spoken about power play efficiency or penalty killing. Instead of some of the world's finest athletes gracing the ice at Madison Square Garden, middle-aged men in suits argue over the division of billions of dollars in a Manhattan skyscraper.
Back in Tulsa, it's a much different situation for Ramsay and his Oilers. They are the antithesis of NHL stars. The minimum salary for their league is a mere 2 percent of the NHL's minimum. There are no merchandising deals and opportunities for endorsements are virtually unheard of.
Yet each year, Ramsay's squad assembles with little more than a passion for the game many of them have played since childhood and the hope of someday playing on the sport's grandest of stages. In essence, it would seem as if nothing could stand in between them and the sport they love.
"I'm really excited," Ramsay said. "I believe we have some of the best talent we've had going into camp in a lot of years. I think our team is going to be one to watch this season."
One to watch this season -- something no NHL team can currently say.
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