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Milwaukee Admirals and the NHL Lockout

by Jason Karnosky

With the recent cancellation of the Winter Classic, the National Hockey League’s lockout officially moved from a mere nuisance to a harsh reality. The standoff between NHL players and owners preventing games from taking place remains entrenched with no end in sight.

However, no such stalemate exists in the American Hockey League, which is rolling through November with a full slate of games. It is a welcome respite for the league’s players, who unlike many of their counterparts aren’t forced to sit around and wait for updates on the negotiations.

“It definitely frustrating for everybody as the owners want to see their teams play, while as players all we want to do is play hockey,” Milwaukee forward Chris Mueller said. “It’s a little bit deflating because we all dream of being an NHL player, but in North America the best league is the AHL right now and it’s a privilege to be playing there.”

First year Admirals coach Dean Evason agreed with Mueller, and emphasized the high level of play in the AHL as big draw for locked out NHL talent.

“The alternative for many AHL players is that might not be playing anywhere,” Evason said. “I think the guys feel very fortunate that they have this opportunity to play in a high quality league, whose level of play isn’t far off the NHL.”

Surely Admirals like Mueller, Ryan Ellis, Gabriel Bourque and Jonathon Blum, would prefer to be skating in cities like Detroit, Columbus and St. Louis, but at least some of the frustration felt by teammates such as Shea Weber, David Legwand and Mike Fisher is being mitigated by the fact that they are still putting on a professional jersey night in and night out.

“I was hoping to have a good start to the year and get a good chance to stay with Nashville,” said Blum of his aborted plans. “Instead I chose to sign an AHL deal and try to make the best of it with Milwaukee. Even though there is the lockout, at least we’re still playing hockey and still doing what we love.”

The lockout stung especially hard on Blum, who finished last season with Milwaukee after wearing a Predators jersey for 33 NHL contests. Following a great summer, the 23-year-old felt he was ready to stick with Nashville on a fulltime basis.

“Last year I ended up going up and down, so this year I wanted to prove I could stick in the NHL for a full season,” Blum said. “The lockout is really frustrating from that stand point.”

The potential NHLers suiting up for the Admirals have plenty of company in a league stocked with potential stars. Much of the game’s future is suiting up in AHL uniforms, most notably for defending Western Conference regular season champion Oklahoma City (6-5-1-1), who Milwaukee (6-6-0-0) faces in a pair of road tilts this weekend.

“The AHL’s very exciting this year,” Ellis said. “There are a lot of great players down here (especially) in Oklahoma City, but it’s not just that team. The competitiveness of the league provides a better chance for everyone involved here to develop.”

The new look Barons boast talents like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and former Wisconsin Badgers defenseman Justin Schultz, who currently leads the league in scoring.

Therefore, competition at the AHL level is even more intense than usual. That might not be a bad thing for young players looking to mature. Future NHL talent like Ryan Suter, Dan Hamhuis, Scottie Upshall and Jordan Tootoo cut their chops for Milwaukee in a 2004-2005 AHL stocked with top prospects and found the year beneficial to their careers.

“Because of the lockout, the AHL was full of the NHL’s top young players which made for a really competitive league that was a lot of fun to play in,” Suter said. “But that season I (also) got a lot of advice and guidance from the Predators organization because they were able to watch most of our games.”

So far the 2012-2013 AHL season has played out along similar lines. The downside is that many players that would normally be suiting up for their respective AHL teams are left fighting for jobs in the ECHL. Same goes for players in the KHL and other leagues, where regular roster spots were unexpectedly taken away by NHL players looking for opportunities.

“The lockout affects everyone,” Ellis said. “It’s not just the NHLers who you think of as the ones directly affected. There are guys playing the ECHL that should be playing here, just as there are players in the AHL that shouldn’t be here.”

When coach Dean Evason signed on to the coach the Admirals, he was looking forward to taking the next step of his career after a long stint as an assistant with the Washington Capitals. Evason lacked professional head coaching experience, and this year he was expecting to be guiding prospects. Instead, he’s game planning against familiar faces from a year ago.

“Right from the start of the year we decided to conduct ourselves under the assumption that no one was going to get called up,” Evason said. “Fortunately, all our (potential NHL players) have been performing like professionals and we’ve had absolutely no issues with attitudes.”

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