Trickle-down effect of NHL lockout not positive
David Branch was in meetings the other day when he received a long-distance phone call from Japan.
On the other end of the line was Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, who was calling to update Branch on the tug of war between Hockey Canada and the KHL concerning 2012 first overall pick Nail Yakupov.
"Just another situation to deal with. Part of the job," Branch said Thursday in Kingston, where he was attending the funeral of Don Gilmour, father of Hall of Famer Doug Gilmour.
However L'affaire Yakupov plays itself out, it is just another side effect the National Hockey League lockout is having on the Canadian Hockey League.
For Branch, the president of the CHL, the ripple effect of the NHL work stoppage trickles down not just to his organization, but throughout the sport. And that's not necessarily a good thing.
As a result, when the lockout formally was announced earlier this month, Branch held brainstorming sessions with CHL officials and team executives about the negative public perception the standoff between Team Fehr and Team Bettman might have on the junior leagues in this country.
"We've had discussions for the need to put a positive spin on the sport of hockey," Branch said. "We've already talked about this with all our teams.
"This is about the image of hockey. One of our major concerns is that people have a negative attitude toward the game. That means we have to work that much harder.
"If I had my druthers, I would rather not see what is happening in the NHL. I share the same feeling as all the other hockey fans out there."
Indeed, if everything was hunky dory at the NHL level right now, the only stories involving Yakupov, the former Sarnia Sting star, would revolve around how many points he would be accruing, not where he can -- or, more specifically, can not -- play.
These are the types of stories Branch is talking about, the types of stories that focus on activities away from the rink thanks to the lockout.
Outside of Sarnia, is this really what the hockey public wants to be reading or hearing about? Certainly not.
Whatever happens with Yakupov, Branch does acknowledge that, moving forward, the NHL lockout has resulted in an infusion of talent for the CHL. Or at least left it with some of its top players who likely would be at the NHL level if not for this work stoppage.
In a normal season, forward Ryan Strome would be auditioning for the New York Islanders while defenceman Dougie Hamilton was in Boston vying for a spot on the blueline of the Boston Bruins. Instead, both are playing for the Niagara IceDogs, at least as long as the lockout lasts.
The same holds true for Kitchener Rangers defenceman Ryan Murphy, a highly regarded defenceman whose rights belong to the Carolina Hurricanes. Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford had told Kitchener officials that, had there not been a work stoppage, Murphy likely would be playing at the NHL level on Tobacco Road.
Under normal circumstances, NHL teams can't just yo-yo players between junior and the pros, at least not without meeting certain regulations. Now that the CBA has expired, however, all bets are off.
Having said that, Branch said "informal" discussions have been held concerning what might happen to those players once the lockout ends. The belief is that NHL teams would want the Hamiltons and Murphys to report to training camps, leaving holes in the rosters of their junior clubs.
"We haven't made any specific restrictions," Branch said. "I'd suggest we'll be talking about things like that with the NHL once an agreement is reached."
Whenever that might be.
NO GAIN FOR JUNIOR LEAGUE
If you think puck-starved fans will be flooding into Canadian Hockey League rinks in the absence of the NHL, don't be too quick to make that assumption.
According to CHL president David Branch, markets that share NHL and CHL teams like Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Ottawa could very well see a spike in attendance at junior games. At the same time, Branch suggests you won't see the same results for teams in the Greater Toronto Area (Brampton/Mississauga, etc.) because the region has not proven itself to have a rabid thirst for junior hockey.
And what about the CHL's smaller markets? Will those areas suddenly find themselves overwhelmed by new fans?
"I'm not so sure the NHL lockout will tangibly affect attendance in those places because, in those smaller communities, they probably are CHL fans first anyway," Branch said. "They probably were going to our games even when the NHL was on."
The previous time the NHL locked out its players, the 2005 Memorial Cup enjoyed record television and attendance numbers. But Branch said the success of that tournament can be attributed to many more factors than just the 2004-05 NHL work stoppage.
"You have to remember just how star-studded that Memorial Cup was," Branch said. "The host London Knights had a number of top-end players like Corey Perry. Sidney Crosby was playing for Rimouski. Shea Weber was on the Kelowna team. And the Ottawa 67's were there with the legendary Brian Kilrea behind the bench.
"Those guys probably had as much to do, if not more, with the popularity of that tournament as the lack of an NHL season did."