With no end in sight to the lockout between the National Hockey League Players’ Association and franchise owners, there will be no Islanders hockey at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum this November.
However, the lockout hasn’t stopped the team’s lower-division affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, and the rest of the American Hockey League (AHL) from dropping the puck on what league executives expect to be a banner season.
The lockout hasn’t affected the AHL schedule, and in its Oct. 13 home opener the Bridgeport Sound Tigers set a record for opening-night attendance, said team president Howard Saffan.
“We had our largest opening night ever,” Saffan said. “My gut reaction is that one, in light of the economy we’re very affordable so our business has gone up precipitously, and two, there are some hockey-starved people out there who are buying tickets.”
The Sound Tigers experienced a 17.7 percent surge in attendance during the 2011-2012 regular season, giving the team the fourth-highest attendance increase among the AHL’s 30 teams.
The team, which is a subsidiary of the Islanders franchise and is owned by Charles Wang, averaged nearly 5,000 fans per game last year, representing the second-highest average attendance in Sound Tigers history behind the 2004-2005 season, which coincided with a work stoppage in the NHL that forced the cancellation of the entire season.
In March 2011, Harbor Yard Sports & Entertainment L.L.C., a subsidiary of the Sound Tigers, purchased the operating agreement of Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena, where the Sound Tigers and the Fairfield University men’s and women’s basketball teams play their home games.
Since taking over the management of the arena, the franchise has worked to significantly increase and diversify the attractions it brings in on an annual basis, Saffan said.
“We purchased the operating agreement of the arena approximately 18 months ago and we’ve gone from 90-plus events to 140-plus events,” he said. “So the answer is yes, we’re a very strong economic motivator in the area. We bring people from Westchester, Fairfield County, New Haven County, the (Naugatuck River) Valley into Bridgeport that wouldn’t ordinarily come here.”
Aside from hockey and basketball games, upcoming events include concerts by Rush, Neil Young, Wiz Khalifa and The Boston Pops, and shows hosted by World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. (WWE) and by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.
Saffan attributed the Sound Tigers’ success to the high level of play in the AHL and to the team’s proximity to New York City, Westchester County and even Long Island via the Port Jefferson Ferry.
“The AHL is the second-best hockey league in the world … it may not be the NHL but on the ice you may be seeing 15 players who will get to the next level,” Saffan said, adding that more than 90 percent of the current NHL players debuted in the AHL.
While the NHL lockout might boost attendance at the league’s AHL affiliates in the short term, Saffan said any prolonged labor action isn’t good for hockey.
“It’s not healthy for the game,” he said, noting that without NHL games being broadcast on television and on the radio, “Hockey doesn’t come to mind.”
The NHL is currently in the midst of its fourth prolonged work stoppage since the 1991-1992 season.
The league recently canceled all games through Nov. 30, with published reports stating that the total loss in hockey-related revenues through the end of November would be $720 million.
“So overall, although we may see a little tick up for us, it’s just not healthy,” Saffan said.