On the AHL road…

BRIDGEPORT, CT - DECEMBER 4: Jeff Hamilton #18 of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers skates against the Hartford Wolf Pack at the Arena at Harbor Yard on December 4, 2005 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Hartford won 5-3. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

by Patrick Williams

Sure, the AHL takes its lumps from time, and its players and coaches can be its biggest critics.

And perhaps that is as it should be. Better to have passion than apathy, even if it happens to take the form of a gripe. For as much as the AHL is rightfully seen as a stepping stone to bigger and brighter lights, the AHL has plenty of quality individuals who quietly serve as the league’s caretakers and are to quick to speak up for the AHL when it comes under fire.

The Russian Elite league is a strong circuit, but to hear one AHL player tell the story, it pales in comparison to the AHL. Sometimes it takes sampling another league to reinforce appreciation for the AHL, a league that can still offer something for everyone – skill, grit, plenty of scraps and no shortage of colorful personalities.

Jeff Hamilton, a pure goal-scorer before they came back into vogue this season, sampled Russian hockey this season in Kazan with Ak Bars, the team that hosted the likes of Vinny Lecavalier last season. He returned to the AHL and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers earlier this month.

The experience was a sour one. The challenges of Russian hockey – difficult travel, the language barrier for North Americans, and a very different brand of hockey – were not Hamilton’s biggest complaint about his two-month jaunt to Russia.

Hamilton will take the AHL any day.

“Russia is like soccer,” Hamilton said. “Eveybody is diving, hooking, holding. It’s a pretty boring style of hockey to watch.”

Hamilton, a pretty skilled player himself, does not dispute the skill level in Russian hockey.

“They’re highly skilled. They can skate well over there. It’s a very highly skilled, talented league.”

Inexplicably buried on the fourth line in Kazan, Hamilton went scoreless in eight games. Even more oddly, Hamilton apparently was deemed a little too rambunctious for Russian referees’ tastes. He collected 16 penalty minutes in his time over there.

“(Russian officiating is) awful. There’s so much diving over there, and it’s very prejudiced toward North Americans.”

Suffice to say, Hamilton is happy to be back in Connecticut, where he has played with the Sound Tigers, Hartford and collegiately with Yale University.

Hamilton’s return is good for the AHL.

O, Canada

One of the more pleasant developments in the past week was a Winnipeg Sun report tabbing Toronto as a candidate to host the 2007 AHL All-Star Classic.

Following up this season’s All-Star week in Winnipeg with Toronto next season would be a very solid step toward the AHL firming up a Canadian presence that has taken some bad lumps in recent years.

In the 1993-94 season, the AHL had a strong Canadian identity. Franchises in St. John’s, Hamilton, Fredericton, Moncton, Charlottetown, Saint John, Cape Breton (Sydney, N.S.) and Cornwall formed half the league.

Slowly, the AHL’s Canadian presence eroded away. Cornwall lost both its OHL and AHL teams during the 1990s. Quebec City was a bust. This past summer’s St. John’s-to-Toronto relocation officially ended the AHL in the Maritimes. Hamilton is still carrying the torch as an old-guard Canadian market.

Being that the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames all had affiliations that nearly spanned the continent, the geography was not optimal. Moving players in and out was not without some challenges. Most of the Maritime markets were on the small side, and the accompanying thin profit margins were hampered by subpar attendance in some of those markets.

As those markets began to fade away, scheduling became increasingly difficult. St. John’s and Saint John had for years played schedules with a heavy Canadian flavor. In 2002-03, those teams were forced to resort to lengthy forays into the United States. Even on the AHL level, Leafs-Flames made for good hockey, but there are 80 dates to fill in a season, after all.

During their final two seasons, St. John’s endured absurdly long road trips, upping travel expenses and accelerating their demise.

The summer of 2004 finally saw Toronto management pull the plug on the St. John’s operation, a move that was largely made possible by the Toronto Roadrunners dashing off to Edmonton.

The addition of Edmonton and a Leafs-affiliated team in Toronto suddenly gave the AHL a face in Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Hamilton, a nice Canadian presence, for sure.

Edmonton was an addition that seemingly came out of nowhere, when in July 2004 the Oilers abruptly shifted their AHL operations west to Alberta, a move that would have been unthinkable prior to the IHL’s absorption into the AHL in 2001.

Shifting gears so late in the summer certainly complicated matters for the AHL. Moving a team from Toronto to a center 1,300 kilometres west of Winnipeg made for some definite adjustments in the AHL schedule.

But those moves seemed worth their cost. Edmonton’s arrival helped give the AHL establish a stronger Canadian television presence, and the Road Runners enjoyed steady media coverage in Edmonton. Oilers management claimed that Edmonton’s long-term viability an AHL city would be given a proper evaluation.

But operating under the belief that the NHL lockout was soon to end, Oilers management claimed in June that the Road Runners would be an unwelcome distraction once the Oilers and the rest of the NHL retuned to play.

Wheaties still going strong

Ryan Stone (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) and Eric Fehr (Hershey) did a number on WHL goalies while they were in Brandon skating for the Wheat Kings.

Now playing just about 90 minutes apart from each other, the pair will see quite a bit of each other this season. That familiarity does not make facing Stone any easier, according to Fehr.

“I know what he’s doing out there, but he’s still tough to stop out there.”

Eye spy

Hershey agitator Louis Robitaille fell victim to one of the stranger injuries this season. Doing battle with Hamilton’s Peter Vandermeer at Copps Coliseum on Oct. 30th, Robitaille suffered a broken tear duct.

“I knew he was coming after me,” Robitaille said last Friday after dressing for the Bears in Philadelphia, barely two weeks after the injury. “We were going at it, and I was ready to go fight him.”

During their run-in, Robitaille caught a Vandermeer finger to the eye. Whether the move was intentional on Vandermeer’s part is unknown.

Robitaille chose his words very carefully.

“I don’t know if he did it on purpose. Hopefully not, I don’t think you want to injury anybody. But I know he has a bad reputation, so you never know.”

Robitaille seemed like a guy not inclined to dwell on the play.

“Like I said, if he did it on purpose, it’s terrible. If he didn’t do it on purpose, we have to move on from it.”