TRENTON, N.J. -- While the NHL and its players remain engaged in a boardroom battle over dollars and cents, professional hockey is still being played across the United States.
Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, of course, are not hockey hotbeds these days. Los Angeles, Detroit and St. Louis aren't, either. But for towns like Toledo, Ohio, and Kalamazoo, Mich., and even here in the capital city of New Jersey, players are still walking through the tunnel and onto the ice to the delight of fans. The East Coast Hockey League may be a much smaller scale than the NHL, and the talent disparity is more than evident.
But say what you will about this lower-level minor league. At least, the games are still being held.
A few hours after the NHL announced the cancellation of games last week through Dec. 14 -- including All-Star Weekend -- the ECHL opened its doors for another night of "good family entertainment" on Friday. Those were the words of Trenton general manager Rich Lisk, as the Titans attempt to cash in on a two-state market raised on -- and now starving for -- NHL hockey.
But the Flyers, just down the road from the Titans and the parent organization of the team, and the Devils, the defending Eastern Conference champions, are nowhere to be seen these days. A charity game is being played by them here and there, sure. Some of them are renting ice on their own to practice, and others are even overseas on temporary pro contracts. But none of that helps the die-hard NHL fan over the long term.
That's where the ECHL comes in.
"It's very much a developmental league. You'll see young guys here," Lisk said prior to Friday night's 3-2 win over Evansville (Ind.). "But the level of play has really jumped up."
Once known as a "goon league," the ECHL used to rely heavily on journeyman players, living out their final days on the ice by brawling with each other and pandering for the crowd. It was cheap shots and a cheap date, something that resembled the Federal League in the 1977 cult classic "Slap Shot."
But times have changed. While there is still fighting in the ECHL, the league is now much more of a developmental system for the NHL and its primary minor outfit, the American Hockey League. The ECHL is more analogous to Class AA baseball with 23 franchises tucked into mid-size cities throughout the nation.
"First and foremost, the talent level in the league has gone up tremendously," Lisk said. "I would say there are 11-to-13 (former ECHL) guys that are under contract to the NHL, where normally we would have five or six. You see the numbers have jumped up. The level of play has definitely, definitely gone up."
But how do you market that these days? Even without much competition for the hockey dollar, most of these ECHL cities are not thriving metropolises, and let's face it, the ECHL game is neither as fast nor as crisp as an NHL or even an AHL game. But there is action, there is atmosphere, and with a little cost-conscious creativity, the league is making it work.
"If you compare the first five (home) games of last year to the first five games of this year, we're up 15 percent," Lisk said. "We're up 20 percent in season tickets. We're up to about 800 season tickets. My goal is to get it to a thousand by the end of this year."
It's a distinct possibility. Without competition from the Flyers, Devils, and New York Rangers, the Titans are experiencing the best of both worlds. There are the true ECHL fans, the loyal bunch that will still be in the building after the lockout. And there are also the NHL fans, who Lisk believes are "testing the waters."
To attract the latter, the Titans have a promotion in which fans who own a ticket-package to any NHL team receive discounted tickets to all Trenton games. Also, ticket pricing is designed specifically for families during this time of economic struggle. Single-game tickets are priced between $15 and $30. Full-season ticket packages begin at $396 and top out at $936. The Titans' home rink, the Sun National Bank Center, seats 7,605 for hockey. They drew 3,687 Friday night.
"I'd like to get it back to where it was in 2005 where you had 5,500 fans every night," Lisk said, harkening back to another year in which an NHL lockout helped business.
The majority of ECHL games are played on weekends, which is a plus.
"The dates have really helped us out. This year we were able to manipulate the schedule a little bit better in our favor, so 25 of our 36 games are what we (call) Grade-A dates," Lisk said. "When I look at a schedule, I want to go for Fridays and Saturdays."
Schedules aside, though, Lisk knows the major reason for this year's gate receipts.
"(Our attendance) is up because of (the lockout)," he said. "It has helped us."
Having players with an NHL future also helps, as well. Who wouldn't want to say -- as a loyal hockey fan -- that you had the chance to see some superstar in the league known as the "E"?
"My team this year, we have three guys who are 20 years old," Lisk said. "That would have been unheard of years ago. Now, it's much more skilled."
The developmental plan is working. A number of NHL players spent time in the ECHL, including Colorado right wing P.A. Parenteau; Minnesota center Zenon Konopka; New Jersey goaltender Johan Hedberg; New York Islanders defenseman Mark Streit; New York Rangers defensemen Stu Bickel and Dan Girardi, as well as goaltender Martin Biron; Phoenix forward Paul Bissonette; Washington forward Matt Hendricks and goaltender Braden Holtby; and, of course, Los Angeles goaltender Jonathan Quick, who led the Kings to the Stanley Cup in June.
"That's everyone's goal," Titans captain Ray DiLauro said. "The NHL."
And because of the lockout, there are now NHL players getting work in the "E." Washington right wing Joey Crabb, Columbus center Brandon Dubinsky, Montreal center Scott Gomez and Tampa Bay forward Nate Thompson all signed with the Alaska Aces, while San Jose left wing Ryan Clowe agreed to terms with the expansion San Francisco Bulls.
But there is a downside to those attractions. While the NHL players stay in game shape by being in the ECHL, there are players who get cut to make room for them. Those players lose ice time, and more importantly, paychecks.
"It's tough. It's hard. I understand (NHL players want to play at home), but guys come here for little money, and they're sitting at home," DiLauro said. "It's a tough spot." Either way, the games -- like the NHL lockout -- roll on in the "E." And it appears like the Titans, and the rest of the league, for that matter, are taking full advantage.
By DENIS GORMAN