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Fresh Ice: Alternatives to the NHL Lockout

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Desperate for hockey? You’re not alone. Nearly 22 million fans attended NHL games last season. All are without hockey this year. While the NHL may be locked out, the sport is booming among lower ranks.

More than half a dozen professional or amateur leagues have quality hockey to offer. Headlining the list is the American Hockey League, Kontinental Hockey League, NCAA and Ontario Hockey League. Locating a game on television or radio is not as simple, but there are outlets serving hockey junkies their fix.


Eight options exist for Pittsburgh hockey fans. All are within 200 miles of the city and four are a simple two hour drive away. The best alternative, however, only requires a short skate to Steel City suburbia.


There are only 59 Division I hockey programs in the NCAA. Pittsburgh is home to one of them. Robert Morris has done their part in helping brand the city as a North American hockey hotbed. Since joining the elite ranks of college hockey just eight seasons ago, the Colonials have knocked off ten ranked opponents. That streak includes an impressive run of five victories over top eight teams since 2007 – two of which came over the No. 1 team in the nation.


Robert Morris’ progress has not gone unnoticed by the NCAA. The University was selected to host the 2013 NCAA Frozen Four at the Consol Energy Center. ESPN will broadcast the event that is touted as the best American hockey outside of the NHL. The Colonials have never made the tournament, but the program is coming off their two best years in history and an early season victory over #18 Quinnipiac.


All RMU games are available via radio broadcast through RMUColonials.com. Those jonesing for a racious hockey atmosphere can watch the team’s home games at the RMU Island Sports Center, located just 15 miles from downtown.


Photo by Mark Selders-Penn State Athletic CommunicationsPenn State has also launched a Division 1 hockey program just three hours to the east.


Perhaps the most exciting players are those looking to make their mark as the next NHL superstars. Luckily for Pittsburghers, one of the premier junior programs in the country is just a short drive away.


More than 20 NHL players, including 40-goal scorer Brad Boyes, have skated for the Erie Otters while at the junior level. The program is part of the 20 team OHL – North America’s primary breeding ground for future professionals. Nearly 50 players from the league were selected last year at the NHL Draft in Pittsburgh.


Erie has already been featured on the NHL Network during the lockout, but it’s possible to catch every contest the Otters play via single game or multi-game package deals on the league’s website.


No viewing pleasure, however, compares to that of the AHL. Many of the NHL’s bright young stars have been shipped to their minor league affiliates. Last lockout it was Eric Staal and Jason Spezza playing in the league. Both have recorded top ten finishes in NHL scoring since. This time it is Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Sean Courturier and Simon Despres headlining the league.


Cleveland, Ohio is home to the nearest AHL franchise, but for Penguins fans, Wilkes-Barre boasts Pittsburgh’s top prospects. As with the OHL, the AHL offers viewing packages on their website.


Other nearby options include the brand new Johnstown Tomahawks, playing junior hockey in the famed War Memorial Arena; and the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL.


Unfortunately, there is not a bevy of options for those who don’t have the luxury of travel freedom or the funds to pay for live streaming packages. Spot relief comes in the form of occasional OHL and QMJHL showcases on the NHL Network. Both are highly entertaining. But, diehard hockey fans must wait until the World Junior Tournament on December 26 to find a full weeks worth of programming on the Network.


Free KHL games can also be viewed on KHLtv.com. Some of the world’s brightest stars like Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin play in the Russian league. If you can overlook shoddy efforts and unpronounceable names, it is an acceptable alternative.


Wheeling NailersSo what is NBC Sports Network replacing the NHL with? Glad you asked. The station will increase their college hockey coverage by 66 percent. Fox College Sports, CBS College Sports and the Big Ten Network are also teaming up with the NHL carrier to provide more than 50 NCAA games. On January 4, Robert Morris will the be beneficiary of the expanded schedule.


Finally, if you just need to hear Mike Emrick’s voice again, tune into NBC’s figure skating coverage. Certainly, Doc is incapable of announcing an entire event without squeezing a ‘finessed’, ‘feathered’ or ‘waffle-boarded’ into the broadcast.

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