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Lock Monsters will see plenty of New England

Sunday, May 17, 1998

By MIKE KILDUFF Sun Staff

LOWELL -- Regarding the recently announced American Hockey League alignment and the Lowell Lock Monsters' placement in the Atlantic Division, Tom Rowe and Gary Campbell nearly harmonized to make something perfectly clear.

"We're not unhappy with the Atlantic Division," said Campbell, part owner of the Lowell Lock Monsters.

"No, not at all," added Rowe, the executive vice president and general manager of Lowell's AHL franchise, while rocking back in his chair and nodding from behind his desk.

Sitting in air-conditioned East Merrimack Street offices on a warm May day, both men appeared perfectly comfortable with the alignment for the 1998-99 season issued last week by the AHL Board of Governors.

Lowell was placed in the Atlantic Division, instead of the geographically more logical New England Division.

The New England Division consists of teams based no more than a three-hour drive from each other: Hartford Wolf Pack (New York Rangers affiliate), the Beast of New Haven (Carolina Hurricanes/Florida Panthers), Springfield Falcons (Phoenix Coyotes), Worcester IceCats (St. Louis Blues/Ottawa Senators) and Providence Bruins (Boston Bruins).

By putting the Lock Monsters in the Atlantic Division, the AHL was able to achieve a balance among its two Eastern Conference divisions with five teams in each group. In this division, the Lock Monsters are grouped with the Portland Pirates (Washington Capitals), Saint John Flames (Calgary Flames), St. John's Maple Leafs (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Fredericton Canadiens (Montreal Canadiens/Los Angeles Kings).

The nearest divisional opponent to Lowell is the Pirates, who play at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine, a two-hour drive from Lowell.

As for the other Atlantic Division rivals, it's more than a five-hour road trip for fans and the team to play the Flames in Saint John, New Brunswick. And the Lock Monsters must fly to Newfoundland for an overnight stay and multiple games against the Maple Leafs.

But don't let the distance deceive you, says Worcester IceCats Executive Vice President Peter Ricciardi. He said, "We have a schedule that is balanced but biased."

The divisional alignment is a grouping mostly for standings purposes, rather than scheduling.

When the league releases each team's 80-game schedule in mid July, the Lock Monsters will play the just-down-the-road IceCats and Providence Bruins almost as often as some divisional rival.

"The more times you play a team, from a fan and a player standpoint, the more intense the rivalry gets," Ricciardi said.

Lowell's Rowe expects the Portland Pirates to show up on the Lock Monsters' schedule most often, with six games at the Tsongas Arena and six up north. The home-and-away split with Saint John may be 5/5 and for both Fredericton and St. John's, Rowe hinted at 4/4.

Nothing is in stone, yet, except for this: Every team in the AHL will visit Lowell at least once, and the Lock Monsters will play in every AHL arena at least once.

What does this mean for the Lock Monsters? The popular Philadelphia Phantoms, an affiliate of the NHL Flyers who play a style similar to their big-league brethren, will bring that famed Broad Street Bully tactics to the Mill City. Lowell fans will also get one chance to see the snappy uniforms and logos of the Kentucky Thoroughblades and Albany River Rats.

The Lock Monsters will play fellow Atlantic Division teams about 40 times, which leaves Rowe and his team with 20-plus games against teams from the New England Division.

"In essence, they'll end up with two kinds of rivals," Ricciardi said, explaining the Lock Monsters will build the normal divisional rivalries with Atlantic Division teams, while also seizing upon the opportunity to play non-divisional foes from the same geographic area.

It's like Louisville versus Kentucky or UMass versus UConn. These colleges play men's basketball in different conferences, but there is a special chemistry when they clash on the court enhanced by shared highways. It could be that way when the Lock Monsters play in-state New England Division teams such as Worcester and Springfield.

When the Bruins come up from Providence, the Tsongas Arena should be packed. The obvious reason being Lowell is closer to Boston, where the NHL Bruins play, than any AHL city. Long before the AHL thought about penetrating Route 495 in Massachusetts, this was Bruins country.

Because of the Bruins' following in this area, Rowe pointed toward the NHL affiliation of Hartford's Wolf Pack (Rangers), as well as Atlantic Division rival Fredericton (Canadiens), as potential drawing cards for the team.

"As we get an identity of our own," Worcester's Ricciardi said, "even the Bruins factor is becoming less.""

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