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No panic in Lowell – yet

By MIKE ZHE, Telegraph Sports Correspondent

LOWELL, Mass. – It is the must-win game behind the game, and for the Lowell Lock Monsters so far, it’s not getting won.

For the fourth straight game, the empty seats outnumbered the filled ones at Tsongas Arena. Friday night’s crowd of 2,109 was the fourth straight sub-3,000 gathering after a celebrated opening night sellout, and not within shouting distance of the team’s goal of an above-4,000 average.

But no panic yet.

"I don’t really think people are thinking about hockey right now," Lock Monsters general manager Tom Rowe said. "Around the league, October is a tough month to draw."

Still, Lowell entered Friday’s game against Syracuse ranked 18th out of the league’s 19 teams in attendance, at just over 3,000 fans per game. Only Fredericton (2,673) has drawn worse.

Some fans have balked at the ticket prices, which range between $11 and $35. Rowe even heard a complaint brought up during a recent meeting of the Lowell City Council. But he defends the rates.

"Our ticket prices aren’t the highest and they aren’t the lowest," he said. "I think we’re a heck of a bargain for a family of four that wants to watch a hockey game."

Still, it’s not that cheap. The least expensive ticket for a Lock Monsters game goes for $11. The only other AHL teams that have a more expensive "low" ticket are Adirondack ($11.50), Saint John ($12) and Hartford ($12.50).

Marcel Cousineau, the goalie fans are likely to see between the pipes during their visits here, floated another idea. He thinks it takes time for any new product to get established, for fans to recognize the players and the team’s significance before they rush to embrace it.

Cousineau knows of which he speaks. He spent the bulk of last year playing in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the Toronto Maple’ Leafs top affiliate and by far the league’s northernmost outpost.

The closest AHL city to St. John’s is Fredericton, New Brunswick – 976 miles to the south. But despite its faraway locale – Santa Claus travels north to attend games there – the city and team are in the midst of a thriving love affair.

"It’s a nice little city," Cousineau said. "People are real nice. They love the hockey. The rink is not big, only 2,500 seats (actually 3,765) but it was filled every night and it was real hard to get tickets. Anywhere you went in the city they knew about the team, they knew your name. It was fun."

A nice ideal. But in Lowell, apparently still a ways away.

Paper tigers?

Last week’s edition of The Hockey News picked the Lock Monsters to finish first in the five-team Atlantic Division: "As a first-year team, management has made immediate winning a priority by stacking quality players at every position," the article stated.

"I think it’s a feather in our cap," Rowe said. "But it definitely puts more pressure on the coaches, players, management – but that’s a good thing."

The magazine also tabs the Lock Monsters as the third-strongest team in the 19-team league, behind defending league champion Philadelphia and Hartford.

Notes of note

Defenseman John Namestnikov was a finalist for AHL Player of the Week honors last week, after scoring goals in games against Portland and New Haven last weekend. ...

In their five years of existence, the Syracuse Crunch have had six players serve as their captain – and two of those players suited up for the Lock Monsters Friday night. Monsters captain Dane Jackson held that title with the Crunch during the 1994-95 season, while Namestnikov wore the "C" in 1996-97. ...

Coming into Friday’s game, Lowell forward Sean Haggerty (2-4-6) had registered a point in all five games, taking over the team lead in scoring. ...

The Monsters welcome the Providence Bruins to Tsongas Arena tonight. Face-off against the Baby B’s is scheduled for 7:35.