AHL openers present alternate reality

Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

SB Nation DC's Ted Starkey takes in the closest thing to Capitals hockey you can see during the lockout -- the opener for the club's AHL affiliate in Hershey.

HERSHEY, Pa. - Under normal circumstances, the Washington Capitals would have been skating in Montreal Saturday night to open a four-game road trip, while the Buffalo Sabres would have been on Long Island for a quick jaunt at the other end of New York state.

But right now, the National Hockey League is operating under abnormal circumstances.

With the league locked out, some of the key young players from both teams were to be found in central Pennsylvania Saturday night for a battle of two of the American Hockey League's oldest franchises. In the club's home opener, the Hershey Bears took on their oldest rivals, the Rochester Americans, with some of Washington and Buffalo's top young talent - as well as some of their key decision makers - in the building.

Washington General Manager George McPhee was in the house to watch some of his top prospects battle Buffalo's, while new Capitals head coach Adam Oates and assistant Calle Johansson helped run the Bears behind the bench.

Goaltender Braden Holtby, who last spring had the Capitals one win from the Eastern Conference Finals, got a nice hand from the Bears crowd during player introductions, a crowd he might otherwise never play in front of again with a job with the big club already won. Dmitry Orlov, who likely would have been skating in the red-white-and-blue of Washington north of the border, was wearing specially designed 75th anniversary jerseys for the Bears, while Stanislav Galiev, one of the team's top forward prospects, would look to make an impression without a chance at the moment for any movement. On the other bench, the visitors from Western New York featured Marcus Foligno, Luke Adam and Cody Hodgson wearing their blue sweaters. A nice crowd of 9,704 nearly filled Giant Center to capacity to check out the new composition of the AHL and get a taste of live hockey for the first time since the spring.

Such is the strange reality of professional hockey at the moment. The NHL's talent has scattered across the globe, with its top young players playing somewhere normally they wouldn't really want to be. But with no chance of any promotion until the NHL gets its house in order, the AHL is the top professional hockey league in North America at the moment.

It has been seen before, most recently during the 2004-05 AHL season - when the NHL lost an entire season - when a young Jason Spezza led the entire league in scoring while being unable to suit up for the Senators during the last lockout. Spezza, Mike Cammalleri and Eric Staal were among the league's top scorers, as all the young talent was unable to earn a promotion to the top league because there was no top league to go to.

It was fitting the game-changing player in Saturday night's game was one of those young talented players locked out, as Foligno - who had spent time in Hershey growing up when his father coached the Bears - helped fuel a Rochester comeback and turn around a 5-2 Bears lead into a wild 8-7 Amerks victory.

Foligno scored a pair of goals - both times showing some big-league flash by slamming the plexiglass boards - and added a pair of assists to fuel the improbable comeback, and demonstrate the strange realities of the current NHL - and AHL

For fans, it certainly is a bit unusual to see Holtby back with the Bears, among some familiar names wearing unfamiliar sweaters. But it offers up hockey in a time where the big league is shut down. And, with some extra talent in a league that normally sees its top performers earn themselves a one-way ticket to the NHL to experience some of the game's cathedrals, chartered flights and nationally-televised games, others are getting some time back in the smaller barns, bus rides and lesser lights of the AHL.

While the Amerks celebrated in the hallways of the Giant Center, they were wearing blue track suits emblazoned with the team logo and ready for a long bus ride up U.S. 15 back towards Rochester overnight. The Americans get a date Tuesday to skate where they normally would be if they earned a promotion - Buffalo's First Niagara Center - and the star of the show, Foligno, would normally be dressed in a suit ready for a charter flight back to Buffalo had there been no lockout. But this Tuesday, when he gets ready in the Sabres' elaborate dressing room in Buffalo, he'll be pulling on the red-white-and-blue of Rochester instead of the blue-and-gold NHL sweater of the Sabres.

Likewise, instead of answering questions in front of the media throng in Montreal following Washington's game at the Bell Centre, Oates was huddled in a small coach's office in Hershey dissecting what went wrong in the 8-7 loss, waiting for his chance to get behind the bench as an NHL head coach for the first time.

Such is the strange reality of the NHL the moment. And no one seems to know when normalcy will return.

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