Oilers' young stars embrace AHL experience as NHL lockout drags on

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

CLEVELAND – They should have been in Vancouver. They should have arrived on a charter plane, gone out to a nice restaurant and slept in a luxury hotel. They should have been preparing to open the season with the Edmonton Oilers – to play the Canucks in a sold-out Rogers Arena on "Hockey Night in Canada."

But, well, you know.

"I'm not thinking about that too much," Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. "Not at all, actually."

"To be honest, I don't really want to think about it," Jordan Eberle said. "I'm excited to be here and play hockey and get things going."

Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins couldn't have been classier about it. But let's be honest: They couldn't afford to think about it. The excitement was relative, at best. Here meant Cleveland. Playing hockey meant playing in the American Hockey League. Getting things going meant opening the season with the Oklahoma City Barons, losing to the Lake Erie Monsters, 2-1, on Friday night in a half- to three-quarters-full Quicken Loans Arena.

Playing in the A at the Q equals an L. Even if the Barons had gotten a W, it would have equaled an L – L for the NHL lockout, L for the loss of lots of money, L for the loss of precious time from their boyhood dreams-come-true.

[Also: What we lost when the NHL lost 'Opening Night']

They don't belong here. Eberle led the Oilers in scoring last season and tied for 16th in the NHL. He played in the All-Star Game. He was a finalist for the Lady Byng Trophy, which is awarded for sportsmanship and performance. Nugent-Hopkins was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft last year and a finalist for the Calder Trophy, which goes to the rookie of the year. (Soon they will be joined by Taylor Hall, the No. 1 pick in the draft two years ago.)

They are here only because the NHL and the NHL Players' Association are still in a stalemate – and because they are on entry-level contracts that say they can go to the minors and make five figures instead of seven.

All they can do is make the best of it, for themselves and for others. As Nugent-Hopkins left the rink after Friday's morning skate, he was stopped by a handful of autograph hounds.

Steve Cieslak, 41, of Aurora, Ohio, has been an Oilers fan all his life. He wore a Wayne Gretzky hat, while his 8-year-old son, Matthew, wore a Monsters sweatshirt. They took a picture with Nugent-Hopkins, who signed some photos Matthew had brought in a binder.

Who would have thought Cieslak would be able to take his son to see the Oilers right here in his hometown?

"He's only seen them on TV," Cieslak said.

* * * * *

They do not fly on charter planes in the AHL. They fly commercial, and they connect. The players have to stand in security lines, wait at the gate and go through all the travel hassles the rest of us do.

When the Barons flew from Oklahoma City to Cleveland on Wednesday, they connected in Dallas. They landed at Terminal C, took a tram to Terminal D, grabbed some lunch, found out their gate had been changed, scurried back to the tram and went back to Terminal C.

"Well, welcome to the American League," Barons general manager Bill Scott said to Eberle. "It's a little bit different."

Eberle just laughed. He laughed again when reminded the schedule had the Barons playing at 7:30 p.m. Friday, then 1 p.m. Saturday against the same team in the same rink, something that would never happen in the NHL.

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The key here is that Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins are still young. Eberle is 22, Nugent-Hopkins 19. This is a step down from the NHL, but in terms of day-to-day team business, it's like going from first class to economy comfort – and it's still a step up from junior, and they were in junior not that long ago.

"I'm used to busing 12 hours everywhere and stuff," Nugent-Hopkins said. "It’s not a huge change for me. Obviously it's a little different than the NHL, but it's nothing that you can complain about for sure."

This is not the minor leagues of "Slap Shot," unless you count the Mullet Brothers, the Hanson Brothers lookalikes who shovel the ice during Monsters games. The Barons bus to only three cities: Houston, Austin and San Antonio. They stay in good hotels, like Hyatts and Hiltons and Marriotts. They receive a healthy per diem on the road: $67 a day, unless some is subtracted because of team-provided meals. No one is suffering.

Many of the cities are big-league cities. Many of the arenas are big-league arenas. Sometimes they're just NBA cities and NBA arenas, like Cleveland and the Q. The game presentation was on par with anything in the NHL on Friday night, from the music selection to the scoreboard effects. Yeah, there were cheerleaders, but aren't there cheerleaders in Edmonton, too? Yeah, there were empty seats – and there would have been more, had it not been opening night – but aren't there empty seats in a lot of NHL rinks? This could have been Oilers-Blue Jackets on an average night in Columbus.

At home in Oklahoma City, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins are renting apartments downtown, walking distance to the rink. They aren't recognized much, if at all, but that isn't so bad when you're a Canadian hockey star who has been in the public eye for years already.

"Really, it's a good life," Scott said. "It's not as tough as people make it out to be."

Then again, the game is tougher than people make it out to be. The Barons are supposed to be the best team in North America as long as there's a lockout, with Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins in the lineup and Hall on the way, plus other top prospects like Justin Schultz and Magnus Paajarvi. But they weren't dominant Friday night (partly because Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins were playing their first hockey since April, not having skated in a preseason game). They couldn't connect on the power play. They couldn't bury their chances.

The NHL lockout has strengthened other teams. The Barons will be circled on every schedule. And when you're a highly skilled player, it's better to play in a highly skilled league, where others think and execute at your level. Excellent hockey sense can work against you. Maybe you go to a spot and the pass never comes, or the pass isn’t on your tape. Maybe an opponent does something you don't expect – screwing up, but screwing you up at the same time.

"This level might be a little bit harder," Scott said. "Things won't come as easy at this level for them."

* * * * *

They aren't like the other guys, and they know it. Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins each treated some teammates to dinner in Cleveland. But they're about the same age as most of their teammates, and they're trying to blend in. "They don't have an elitist attitude at all," Barons coach Todd Nelson said.

And that's why this could help make them truly elite someday. They need to do what players like Jason Spezza, Patrice Bergeron, Eric Staal and Nathan Horton did during the 2004-05 lockout. "They're still young enough that they can get a lot out of this experience," Scott said.

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Eberle can work on his defensive game. Nugent-Hopkins can work on his faceoffs, and he can keep strengthening that slender body. They can develop their skills while developing chemistry with some of their future teammates, learning to set a high standard, learning to live up to the billing.

"That's something we've said to them," Scott said. " 'Be the best player in the league. Everyone's going to think you should be, but make sure you maintain that level of competitiveness and drive while you're here. Don't take it easy, because you need to pull everyone else up. They're going to try to play up to your level, but if you start to come down, then they're going to go down with you.' "

Make the best of it.

"I think it's pretty easy to do," Eberle said. "I mean, we're playing in the best league in North America. I think this league is definitely underappreciated, doesn't get enough credit for how good the talent is here. There's for sure a handful of guys on each team that could be playing in the National League. So for me, it's just a case of coming down here, improving my game, getting to play some hockey.

"It definitely beats waiting around."

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