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The Future of the NHL In Our Backyard

By Michael Walsh and Carmine Vetrano

To see the future stars of the NHL, fans do not need to haul up to Canada, or even cross the Atlantic to go over seas.  The stars of tomorrow are right here in our backyard in Hartford and Providence.

The XL Center in Hartford, Conn.

The Hartford Wolfpack, whose NHL affiliate is the New York Rangers, play right down the road at the XL Center, formerly the Hartford Civic Center where the beloved Hartford Whalers played. The XL Center takes no more than 15 minutes on I-84. Just take the highway east to exit 50 and then just follow the signs to the arena.  Parking is reasonable, just 10 dollars and you can park right under the arena.  There are some parking lots around the arena, but it is more convenient to park right there.

The tickets range from $33-19 but the beauty about the XL center is that it is never sold out. Now 30dollars does seem steep but just go for the lower priced ones and move down, they XL Center is very lenient on where people seat, unless it is in season ticket holders seats. The arena is great to watch a hockey game and a lot of future starts grace the ice that is just down the road. If you follow hockey and want to se the upcoming rookies, the XL Center has it.

The Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I.

This is more of a trip but it is definitely worth making a day out of.  Especially for all the Bruins fans, why not go make the hour and 45-minute trip on 6 East to the 6/10 connector. The Dunkin Donuts center is right in the heart of Providence, which is a beautiful city to make the day of with the Providence Place Mall, the Players Cub Bar and Grille and Convention Center that offers exhibits, shows and restaurants.

The 11,000 seat arena is home to the Bruins AHL affiliate who have been a force in the AHL, which means great hockey to watch. Tickets go for $16-24 however, is a little stricter in seating since the place usually fills up with people. The Convention Center parking garage is the best place to park because it is right next to the Center. It is an hourly rate but affordable.

MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass.

Springfield Falcons

A quick 30 minute trip up I-91 will lead hockey fans to the MassMutual Center in Springfield, MA. Perched inside this 6,679-seat nest since 1994 are the Springfield Falcons, current AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers, and former affiliate of teams like the Hartford Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, Phoenix Coyotes and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Unfortunately for Falcon fans the team hasn’t been very successful no matter who the affiliate has been. Making the playoffs in just six of 15 seasons and once in the last nine, there hasn’t been much to cheer about for the diehards. In fact, the team has suffered 10 straight losing seasons.

Since becoming the training grounds for the Oilers in the 2007-2008 season, the Falcons have had two fast starts that both tapered off dramatically. But don’t let this inability to make the playoffs sway you from taking a quick trip up to Springfield. What the team lacked in clutch and timely scoring, it made up for in energy and grit. And even though the same has been promised to fans of the Falcons the last two years, the 2009-2010 team appears to be improved.

Despite losing teams, talent can be found here. Most notably, Daniel Briere and Manny Legace once donned Falcons jerseys. This year’s team includes prospects such as former first round picks Devan Dubnyk and Alex Plante and Taylor Chorney, the 36th overall selection in 2005. The Falcons even have ties to Hartford with former second round pick Colin McDonald, a Hartford-born and Wethersfield-raised forward.

The renovated MassMutual Center, which originally opened in 1972 as the Springfield Civic Center, offers the chance to see entertaining hockey in a more intimate setting than the XL Center in Hartford. The low ceilings capture each and every on ice sound and as a fan you’re right on top of things. Any hockey fan of the east would be doing a disservice to themselves by not taking a visit to the MassMutual Center.

DCU Center in Worcester, Mass.

Worcester Sharks

One of the more odd AHL arenas is home to the Worcester Sharks, AHL affiliate of the San Jose Sharks. The arena seats 7,230 with the curtain system operating, which blocks off seats usually unsold for the hockey events, and 14,800 seats in total. The arena sits in the heart of Worcester and is just a little more than an hour away from the central Connecticut area.

With end zone seats as steep as a mountain and the rest as flat as a plain, the DCU Center’s strange layout catches your eye immediately upon entry. Depending on where you sit, you may or may not have a good sightline to the action with either errant railings blocking view or the inability to see all the way down the ice due to the lack of steep seating along the sides.

But these are small inconveniences any hockey fan can get over to enjoy a game in this unique arena. Before the Sharks played in the DCU Center, the rink was home to the Worcester IceCats, the AHL affiliate of the St. Louis Blues, a partnership that led to nine playoff appearances in 11 seasons. More recently, the Sharks have made the postseason two out of three times and appear to be a contender for years to come as the San Jose Sharks are a organization able to provide great talent for its minor league club. As of late, that talent has included current NHLers such as Devin Setoguchi, Joe Pavelski, Douglas Murray, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Steve Bernier and Matt Carle.

A trip to Worcester will be bet with a unique viewing experience and consistently solid play by the Sharks. When you have promising young talent like Logan Couture, the ninth overall pick in 2007, playing alongside offensive minded veterans like Dwight Helminen and Ryan Vesce you really can’t go wrong.

Tsongas Arena in Lowell, Mass.

Lowell Devils

A lengthier ride of nearly two hours through Massachusetts leads to Tsongas Arena in Lowell, MA, home of the New Jersey Devils’ AHL affiliate the Lowell Devils and former AHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes from 1998 until 2006. The fairly young arena opened in 1998 and currently seats HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seating_capacity” \o “Seating capacity” 6,500 for a hockey event.

Tsongas Arena is one of the smallest arenas visually in the area. This has to do with the fact that the seating is one entire lower bowl. No upper or lower decks separate the fans from one another. A positive coming from this is certainly the good sightlines for fans no matter where you sit. You’re never too far from the action.

But what all hockey fans will notice, and eventually miss, is the lack of a video scoreboard. For an arena that is approaching only its 12th birthday, it’s confounding how the arena could lack even the simplest of video scoreboards hanging above center ice. Instead, fans are given a pixilated text only screen for stats and other pertinent information. So pay close attention to the play because you won’t be seeing that great goal again.

Not since the time NHL Stanly Cup champion Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes played for the franchise under its Lock Monsters moniker has the team made the playoffs. The New Jersey Devils took over operations in 2006 and have missed the playoffs each of the three seasons.

The club still has talent, such as 21-year-old Alexander Vasyunov, who played his first season in North America last season after coming over from Russia, and Matthew Corrente, the 30th overall draft pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

Even though Lowell might be a little out of the way, any true hockey fan would benefit from making the trip.

Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport, Conn.

Bridgeport Sound Tigers

One of two Connecticut-based teams, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, AHL affiliate of the New York Islanders, play inside the 10,000 seat Arena at Harbor Yard, one of the newest arenas in the league. It was opened in 2001 and is less than an hour away from central Connecticut.

Since coming into the league in 2001, the Sound Tigers have been a competitive team every single season. The team’s best postseason run came in its first season, as they advanced all the way to the Calder Cup finals, only to lose the series to the Chicago Wolves. Their best regular season record came last year as they won a club record 49 games.

The Sound Tigers have also been able to produce NHL players such as Trent Hunter, Rick DiPietro, Kyle Okposo, Bruno Gervais, and Sean Bergenheim. This season the team has a nice collection of talent including Jesse Joensuu, a former second round pick who spent some time with the Islanders in the NHL last season. The team also has former second round pick Dustin Kohn and the Islanders first round pick last year, goalie Mikko Koskinen.

An interesting dynamic added to the history of the Sound Tigers is their inclusion into the Atlantic Division this year. That means instead of battling with the Hartford Wolf Pack, an in-state rival, over a trophy as unimportant as the Geico Connecticut Cup, a trophy awarded to the winner of the season series, the two teams will be jockeying for playoff position all season long. So take a trip down to Bridgeport when the Wolf Pack head down as well, you’ll be in for a intense rivalry game at an up-to-date arena.

Either way you look at it the future of NHL hockey is right near us. Go out and see the future stars.