Hoops Fans Turn to Hockey

COMMENTARY | With the season’s first weeks cancelled, basketball fans brace for the loss of their beloved sport. Even an optimistic scenario has the NBA playing a partial schedule. With each day of unresolved animosity, the likelihood of a lost campaign increases.

Fall is a fun time for sports. Basketball enthusiasts may follow the NFL, baseball, college football, college basketball, NASCAR, or hockey. Yet, as fall becomes winter, diversion options will diminish.

Fear not, hoops fans. Hockey is a perfect alternative for those extra sports moments and dollars. Not only is hockey played in most NBA markets, but many NHL teams even play in the same buildings. So why not be like me and trade King James for Sid the Kid, sneakers for skates, and free throws for power plays?

Hockey has an additional appeal for fans outside the biggest cities. Both leagues have 30 franchises throughout North America. However, only hockey has a thriving minor league system for under-served cities in between. While basketball has a fledgling D-League, minor league hockey has provided excitement for decades.

Basketball fans should note there are four primary minor leagues in America. The American Hockey League is the highest level and equivalent of AAA baseball. The AHL has 30 teams, with the majority in the Northeast and Midwest. Competition rivals the NHL and most players get a shot at the big leagues.

With 20 teams from Alaska to Florida, the Double-A ECHL serves many mid-sized markets, where this is the hottest ticket in town. Examples of cities enjoying notoriety from housing a franchise include Kalamazoo, Mich., and Charleston, S.C. ECHL teams are affiliated with NHL and AHL clubs and provide a feeding ground for young talent.

Two lower leagues bring quality hockey to smaller markets. The Central Hockey League has 14 franchises serving the Midwest and Plains. The Southern Professional Hockey League features nine teams in the hockey-crazed South. These players will never reach the NHL. However, many climb the minor league ladder, while others valiantly cling to their favorite sport.

Basketball fans enjoy unhindered access, with no bulky helmets or complicated uniforms in the way. Fans can sit close to the action and witness the emotions of play.

Many similar aspects exist with minor league hockey. Teams play in smaller arenas, with fans closer to the action. Additionally, without exorbitant salaries, tickets are affordable and nose-bleed seats unnecessary.

I already support my local team, the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. But while basketball is on break, I plan to expand interest in minor league hockey by following teams, players, and leagues beyond my corner of the world. Thankfully, geography is never a barrier for a sports fan in 2011.

Jeff Briscoe is a sports fan from Florida, who covers minor league hockey for the Miami Examiner.

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