Lockout blessing and curse: Agnew

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 12:27 PM ET

The small multinational army slipped across the Canadian border at Lewiston and the mini-invasion was on in downtown Hamilton. Among them were two Austrians, a Norwegian, a Russian, a Finn, a Swiss and an equal blend of Americans and Canadians.

The American Hockey League is a bit like one of those foreign conflicts in places with unpronounceable names to folks accustomed to the winter-long siege the National Hockey League wages in larger cities across the continent.

But it is every bit as serious to the combatants, more serious this winter in light of the NHL lockout.

"Because of the influx of up-and-coming superstars, the pace and the depth of teams is much better," said former Knights coach Gary Agnew after leading his Syracuse Crunch team into Copps Coliseum for last night's game against the Hamilton Bulldogs as the .500-level teams battle for a playoff position.

Crowds have been up in many AHL cities, with Hamilton among the leaders with an increase of 45 per cent over last year. Of that, 35 per cent is attributed to a preseason sales campaign, but the remaining 10 per cent is seen as a result of the absence of the NHL.

Last night's 3-0 Hamilton win, with ex-Knight Dan Jancevski contributing a pair of assists, attracted 5,770.

The presence of the AHL on Sportsnet is a factor, along with fan awareness some top young NHLers are in action. Agnew sees his league as suddenly occupying the top hockey rung on this continent as a blessing and a curse.

"It's been a bit of a curve-ball in the sense that you can see some great young players but you sometimes see guys going through the motions," he said. "It's as though the normal motivation of being called up (to their NHL affiliate) has been taken away from them, as if no matter what they do, they aren't going to get called up."

Agnew, who was general manager/coach of the Knights until the Hunter family took over, would dearly love to have one of the top young players in the game on his roster at the moment. Instead, ex-Knight Rick Nash of the parent Columbus Blue Jackets is playing in Davos, Switzerland.

"Could he have cleared waivers and played here?" Agnew asked. "Yes, I believe he could have. On the other hand, I can understand why he's playing in Switzerland."

The answer is because the Columbus brain trust would rather see the future of their franchise performing in the milder European game than become the target du jour in the AHL.

Still, with NHL talent available, not all teams are beneficiaries of the lockout. The Crunch's top one is Alexander Svitov, a third-round pick by Columbus who was under suspension for last night's game. Another, Aaron Johnson, played 40 games with the Blue Jackets last season.

"The AHL is all about the haves and have-nots," Agnew said. "Teams like Binghamton (Ottawa Senators farm club) have Jason Spezza, Anton Volchenknov, about five or six NHLers, whereas another team might not have any. Binghamton is in first place, Utah is in last for a reason."

He's been out of junior hockey three years but Agnew stays up on events in London. He keeps an eye on the Knights and in particular Dan Fritsche, who played for Syracuse in last spring's playoffs, and Rob Schremp, whose father and uncle Agnew knows from the Syracuse area.

He was fascinated about the Western Mustangs seeking to set a collegiate hockey record attendance tonight at the John Labatt Centre and not just because he's an alumnus.

Perhaps there's some empathy here. The Mustangs are taking advantage of a larger stage to put their product over, Agnew and colleagues are working on one with some room left available by the absence of the NHL.


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