With the NHL lockout in its first full week, and little movement in the negotiations between the two sides, and all September preseason games wiped off the books this week, it's looking less and less likely that the NHL will start on time.
For hockey fans around Washington who have been getting their hockey fix streaming KHL games to see Alex Ovechkin skating in unfamiliar Dynamo Moscow blue and want the live hockey experience, the American Hockey League's Hershey Bears are set to start on time in October.
Given the unique circumstances of this year's NHL lockout, many clubs will be sending their top young talent to their AHL affiliates this season, with the Bears suiting up Braden Holtby and Dmitri Orlov, among others. While normally the 10,500-seat Giant Center draws well for Bears games, the rising talent level in the AHL along with the addition of some of the league's locked-out stars means that the Bears should be offering a very entertaining brand of hockey this fall.
"I think a lot of the talk goes back to the 2004-05 season and everybody had their eye - especially in the East division - on the Binghamton Senators, when they had Ray Emery was their goaltender and Jason Spezza was their star scorer and Antoine Vermette was sniping too," Bears play-by-play man Scott Stuccio said of the upcoming season. "You had players like that [who] came down and there hasn't been much talk of talent like that since then other than guys coming down with conditioning assignments in the National Hockey League. This particular year there's a lot more talk.
"It's the third [lockout] under Gary Bettman's tenure and [with] the development and scouting by the National Hockey League, there is exponentially more talent in this league. The first and second year NHLers are going to be here in this league playing.
"We're going to see Adam Henrique with Albany in our third home game [on Oct. 27]. Opening night here at Giant Center [on Oct. 20] is against Buffalo's affiliate Rochester, the second-oldest team in the league and the top young talent of the Buffalo Sabres will be here.
"You look all year long, you're going to see some popular guys. This year, more so than ever, compared to the last two lockouts, it's really going to feed the league with a lot of good talent."
Anyone who's been to Hershey over the past few seasons has enjoyed one of the most unique and boisterous crowds in the AHL, and the Bears have performed well. They've won three Calder Cups in the past six years while producing some of the players that pull on Capitals sweaters today. While some of the league's clubs don't enjoy a lot of support, the Bears have now led the AHL in attendance for six years running.
"The first thing is that if you want to be as close to an NHL atmosphere as you possibly can, the fact is that this place is filled up. It is," Stuccio said. "Six years running, it's led the AHL attendance.
"It's a building that has many of the amenities that few, if any, other buildings in the league has for players and for fans. It's really set apart in that way ... the league went from 80 to 76 games last year, which means [that] we lost two home games, but we still averaged more than we did the year before. In terms of overall attendance, [we drew] a little over 9,800 per game.
"It's amazing for a building that [seats] 10,500 and the fact is that it's just about filled - if not totally filled - every night. For the hockey atmosphere, you can't get anything better in the AHL. This place is amazing. Amazing atmoshphere - especially when they're winning. It's a loud building in here. The fans also let the team know when they're not doing well, too."
The Giant Center is across the parking lot from Hersheypark, and the original home of the Bears, historic Hersheypark Arena. With the tourism that the town generates from being home to chocolate giant Hershey, fans also can sample some of the local fare before or after games.
"Great places," Stuccio said. "The Bears Den in the Hershey Lodge has its own distinctive style to it in the modeling of the old Hersheypark Arena inside. Really good venue, good food, a lot of people go there afterwards ... Chocolate Ave. behind the park is filled with small but excellent restaurants and sports bars all the way down. Anything within a mile of the Giant Center, there's a lot to do."
A visit to Hershey also gets a strong backing from Capitals radio voice John Walton, who called games for Hershey from 2004 to 2011.
"For any Caps fan that hasn't been to Hershey, I strongly recommend making the trip," Walton said. "Going to a hockey game in Hershey should be on every fan's bucket list, because no small town anywhere in the world has the passion for the game that Chocolatetown does. Just get your tickets in advance. A lot of games, especially on Saturday nights, sell out quickly."
For fans who can't make it to Hershey, there is good news, as Hershey is scheduled to play a game on Dec. 6 at Verizon Center against the Norfolk Admirals - technically a Norfolk home game.
When asked if the team is looking forward to its first visit to Washington since becoming a Caps affiliate again in 2005, Stuccio laughingly replied "Yes."
"It's going to be a lot of fun for that game. The odd part, it's not a home game for us, but I think we're going to have the home fans rooting for us. It's going to be a pretty amazing atmosphere if we can play that game there, if nothing is finalized, with the NHL, maybe we can give them some incentive (laughs).
So while the Capitals are locked out, the good news is that fans can enjoy one of the most unique venues in the AHL, and support a club unlike many others across the league.