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As NHL lockout continues, AHL surges forward as attractive alternative for hockey-starved fans

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Bare-chested and dripping with sweat after a brief morning skate, Syracuse Crunch left winger Cory Conacher stood at the edge of the rink and tested the feel of a new hockey stick.

"Are there illegal curves in this league," Conacher asked Friday with a devilish smile before retreating to the dressing room in the bowels of the Onondaga County War Memorial.

Indeed, the NHL lockout was an afterthought, at best, at that moment for Conacher, who is busy carving out a career in the American Hockey League. A player, just 22 years old, who fits those classic sports clich�s right now — upside, potential, you name it — Conacher, like so many others in the league that they call the "A," has no time to be concerned with the league that's not playing hockey these days.

All that matters, is he's playing somewhere.

And he's making the most of it.

"Everyone thinks about it, but right now there's no NHL and I don't even really worry about it," said Conacher, who had 39 goals and 80 points to earn AHL rookie of the year honours last season. "I'm not a guy that does research. I don't know what the talks are like. There will be stuff on Twitter every once in a while, but I'm more worried about playing here and continuing to develop.

"It's only my second year of professional, so it's important for me to continue to grow and stay consistent."

That's good news for the home team and the entire AHL. Fans and the media are showing great interest in Conacher and Co., as the lockout, which began on Sept. 15, rages on.

So far, all scheduled NHL games through Nov. 30 — 327 and the New Year's Day outdoor Winter Classic — have been cancelled, and more cancellations are likely if a deal isn't reached soon. The All-Star Game, in Columbus, Ohio, could be next off the list, as talks continue to produce little.

Though everybody, at all levels of this game, would like to see the impasse end sooner than later, the atmosphere in the AHL has never been better.

At midweek, overall attendance in the 30-team AHL stood at 970,416 after 184 games, an average of 5,274 per game. Five clubs were averaging more than 7,000 and another 10 were surpassing 5,000 nightly. Hershey led with an average attendance of 8,684 in six home games, while Syracuse had attracted 5,440 per game for the first four home dates, ahead of 2011-12.

"We're way ahead in everything — tickets, sponsorship," said Crunch owner Howard Dolgon, who switched NHL affiliations from Anaheim to Tampa Bay prior to the season. "I don't think that's all related to the lockout. I think, for us, a part of that is the excitement over the change in affiliations and the quality of the teams.

"I certainly think that there's more of an emphasis on the American Hockey League now across the board. People are realizing just how good this league is, and now that they're seeing it, the players are probably feeling a real sense of pride playing in this league. We've always been the second-best league in the world.

"Now, more people know that we are."

A week ago, the Crunch played the Hamilton Bulldogs at the Bell Centre in Montreal, and a near-capacity crowd showed up for the first hockey game of the year on the home ice of the Montreal Canadiens.

"It was crazy," said Jim Sarosy, chief operating officer of the Crunch. "There were 18,000 people there all missing hockey. Absolutely, there is a buzz."

Syracuse coach Jon Cooper marveled at the attention.

"When we went to Canada, TSN, the equivalent of ESPN, has got AHL highlights going all the time," Cooper said. "We're sitting there watching our scores on national TV. That's something that probably wouldn't happen had the NHL been going on, but it was definitely a lot of fun for our guys."

Headed into the weekend, Syracuse was 7-2-1-1 and in first place in the East Division.

"These guys are intense," Cooper said. "There's more talent out here, the ability to make plays, goal scoring, every line is a threat to score. I don't know if you could say that a year ago. The league's just much deeper now."

And being eyed more closely.

NHL facilities operations manager Dan Craig, the so-called ice guru of the league, is in town to make sure the War Memorial's ice surface is consistent. Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher is spending his second weekend in Syracuse, and Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman has been to a handful of Crunch games.

"That's stuff we never see," Sarosy said. "And then the media, articles in the Toronto Sun following local products, Oklahoma City on the front page of The Hockey News. That's stuff we would never have if the NHL was playing."

To be sure, the product on the ice in AHL arenas is above average and promises only to get better the longer the lockout continues. Look no further than the top ten in scoring so far. On that list is Oklahoma City's Jordan Eberle, Rochester's Marcus Foligno, and Adirondack's Brayden Schenn. All three are young NHLers who will play valuable minutes for Edmonton, Buffalo and Philadelphia, respectively, once — or if — the NHL season commences.

"Any first line of any team could be in the NHL, so the level of play is a little higher," Crunch defenceman J.P. Cote said. "It's good for everybody. Everybody raises their play."

Although it's still early, the Crunch is intent on repeating as league champion. The team won the Calder Cup a year ago while based in Norfolk, Va.

"It's a good environment, a good team, a good group of guys," said winger Brett Connolly, who played in 68 games for Tampa Bay last season. "We're off to a good start. I'm having a lot of fun.

"Obviously, the NHL is on a lot of people's minds, but it can't be because you don't know when it's going to start again. If it's locked out for the whole season, we've got a team here that can repeat. There's a lot of positive things."

Like that new curved stick.

"If the NHL does come back, maybe I will get my chance," Conacher said. "I've got to take advantage of all the opportunities I'm given and go from there."

So far, so good.

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