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Unfamiliar with Komets' opponents? Get used to it

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For more on the Komets, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blakesebring and at his blog, www.tailingthekomets.com.

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Kalamazoo at Komets
Faceoff: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Radio: WOWO, 1190-AM

Constant turnover of players diminishes fan experience

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 - 5:40 am

This may sound like an old guy ranting.

A few weeks ago, ESPN columnist and former Los Angeles Kings season-ticket holder Bill Simmons was writing about the NHL lockout.

``I realized that it didn't really matter who the Kings played from night to night. Sure, you always enjoy seeing the Malkins and Ovechkins, but it's a much different mind-set from, say, LeBron playing the Clippers.''

That led to some thinking about who the stars are that fans would pay to see in the minors. Who are the players everyone recognizes when they realize a specific team is coming to town? Who are the personalities?

There may not be many left.

Let's see, the Komets have Colin Chaulk and Kaleigh Schrock, who have been around awhile; Kalamazoo has Kory Karlander and now Mitch Versteeg again; and Evansville has Todd Robinson and Matt Gens. Colorado has Riley Nelson, Kevin Ulanski and Aaron Schneekloth, but the Eagles don't come to Fort Wayne this year.

Granted they have not played the Komets yet, but the Cincinnati Cyclones do not have one recognizable player. Neither does Toledo, really. The coaches are familiar, but no one who actually plays the games.

In other words, there are no Larry Sterlings or Jim Duharts or Robin Bouchards in the ECHL. Where have you gone Tyler Willis, Brian Bicek, Tab Lardner and Kerry Toporowski? Is it blasphemous to miss watching Les Reaney? Everybody in the building knows when he's on the ice.

Part of this unfamiliarity is because the Komets are in their first year in the ECHL, but don't expect it will change in a couple of years.

Just like we did when the Komets entered the Central Hockey League four years ago, The News-Sentinel sent questionnaires to every ECHL team. We asked who had the best slap shot, who was the best goaltender, who was the best hitter, the biggest fighter, etc. Few questionnaires were filled out, though there were quite a few responses. They simply didn't know who would be on their roster -- and this was in late August.

The Komets love to announce a signing or two every week during the summer to keep interest going. Most ECHL teams can't do that because they rely on their American Hockey League affiliates to stock most of their rosters. Imagine how long the summer seems for teams announcing a player or two every month.

If most ECHL teams brought back eight players from last year's team, that's a lot; in fact, it's basically the league average. It's also not even half the roster. Kalamazoo has the most with 13 players from last year, but some teams have as few as four players back. Most of the teams also play six to eight rookies every night.

Promoting in the minors is becoming more about the event and less about the game, partly because there's less from the game to draw fans in. The entertainment product is evolving, and maybe not for the best.

The game is becoming more corporate and less relatable, because how do fans relate? Through the players they recognize or have come to know. Now, because of the Internet, they may know the opposing fans better than they do the opposing players.

There's less connection between the players on the ice and the fans in the stands. How can teams start or maintain rivalries when there are so few players who are back from year to year? It's pointless to even try.

When someone in the league was asked a few weeks ago about all the constant player turnover so far, they said it would increase by five times if the NHL lockout ends. That wouldn't just be at the beginning, either, but every week. Oh, joy.

Getting back to the longtime veteran players -- enjoy them because it's unlikely they'll be replaced when they are gone. That's not necessarily the teams' choice, but the mandate of their AHL affiliates who are always looking to produce players for their NHL parent clubs. ECHL teams need those affiliated players to compete, but really only the die-hard fans may recognize them. Chaulk may be the last player to last 10 years with the Komets.

What can be done about this? Probably nothing except maybe adding another veteran spot on the roster. The leagues have to balance providing the best entertainment for their fans and developing players for the NHL. That's a balance the NHL will win all the time, which may end up hurting minor league teams who lack identity.

The minors are losing their uniqueness just the way it would if every ice surface had to meet the same precise measurements. The quality of play is better, but maybe not the quality of the game as the character of the play changes without the characters.

In other words, for the good of the game, the radio announcer cannot be a team's dominant personality. Even Bob Chase ... well, even he can't last forever. Probably.

I can definitely tell you who the radio announcers are in Fort Wayne, Toledo, Kalamazoo, Evansville and Cincinnati. They've all been there awhile. I just need their help figuring out who the players are.

Thank goodness, they're all old guys, too.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Blake Sebring at bsebring@news-sentinel.com .