AHL camps poised to start as NHL lockout continues

BY foxsports • September 28, 2012

American Hockey League training camps open this weekend and Syracuse Crunch coach Jon Cooper is more than ready.

He better be. With the NHL lockout in full effect, there are quite a few more eyes on the AHL.

Cooper's players hit the ice in earnest on Saturday, and right now, the year promises to be like no other on his short-but-impressive resume.

Sure, he'll have to juggle lines, but not rosters. The incessant shuttling of players between the AHL and the National Hockey League will be on hold while the lockout continues.

''I guess there's no threat of losing guys to call-up,'' Cooper said Friday with a smile as his players went through strength testing before an optional afternoon skate. ''Your only demon is injuries. It's the one thing in the American League - I guess I've become immune to it - going to the rink for a game and there's a message on your (answering) machine in warmups that so-and-so can't play because he's getting called up. You don't have to worry about that, so I guess there is a bonus out of that.''

It's about the only one, it seems.

The NHL and the players' association resumed negotiations on Friday after more than two weeks apart and agreed on issues related to player safety and drug testing. However, the core economic divide that is preventing an end to the league's latest lockout was not even on the agenda, though negotiations are expected to last through the weekend.

They're the first talks since the lockout was put in place, and they came a day after the league canceled the preseason. The core issue separating the sides is the division of more than $3 billion in annual revenue.

The NHL regular season is scheduled to start Oct. 11, but the Crunch aren't thinking much about that. The franchise switched affiliations from Anaheim to Tampa Bay after last season and are intent on winning a second straight AHL championship. Based in Norfolk, Va., last year, Cooper led the team to the Calder Cup, winning 29 straight games along the way.

''I have a lot of friends that are on lockout, but my main concern is I know that I'm going to be here in the AHL, and this is the team that I want to help,'' defenseman J.P. Cote said. ''It doesn't bother me much. I'm actually pretty glad I get to play and that the level of play is probably going to be higher than it used to be. I'm pretty excited. The guys are pumped to get it started.

''All we want to do is perform. It was a great experience for us last year. We focus on what we can control. We hopefully want to get all the fans behind us in Syracuse.''

Shouldn't be too hard. The 1936-37 Syracuse Stars won the first AHL championship, beating the Philadelphia Ramblers 3-1 in the league finals, but no other Syracuse team has won a title. So, the city is hungry.

Cooper said the lockout will present a lot of different challenges ''managing a bunch of players that probably aren't accustomed to playing in this league last year because they were playing in another league, and managing the players that would have been playing here that won't be because current NHLers are down.''

It's also going to create more attention across North America.

''It brings a whole different dynamic because there's going to be guys that aren't going to make the team that would have had there not been a lockout,'' Cooper said. ''Not only is this a tryout for our team, but with no (NHL) training camps, this is almost an internal tryout. Every NHL team has to fill their roster once the lockout ends, and if it ends in the next month or so, this is a tryout for anywhere from three to five guys on every team in the league.''

And that can only bode well for the fans.

''You've got to come in here and prove to the coaches and prove to the management that you belong,'' said forward Brett Connolly, who played 68 games last season with the parent Lightning after being selected sixth overall in the 2010 NHL draft. ''You've got to be coming in here with a good mindset that you're going to come in here and prove. It should be a pretty competitive week or two.

''I think it's a good thing for the younger guys. It's a place where we can all play and get better and not be sitting around. It's definitely tough on some guys, but we've got a good situation here in Syracuse. It should be a lot of fun.''

Which is more than you can say for the labor meetings that are being held in the same state.