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The Globe and Mail

Toronto Marlies ready for their close-up thanks to NHL lockout

Season-ticket sales are up 74 per cent. Single-game tickets are going three times faster than they were at this point last season.

And the major networks are more interested than ever in broadcasting games, on television and radio.

If any one team stands to benefit the most from the NHL lockout, the Toronto Marlies appear to be it.

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With the Toronto Maple Leafs mothballed for who knows how long, their affiliate club is expecting the momentum from last year's playoff run combined with the lockout will mean sellouts are far more routine at the 7,800-seat Ricoh Coliseum.

"I love that," Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins said. "I love telling people you can't just walk up to our building like two or three years ago, and grab a ticket on game night. That's not happening. You might want to call in for the end of October. Because we're starting to sell out."

It also certainly doesn't hurt that the AHL will be flush with NHL-calibre talent on almost all of its teams.

Many organizations have demoted their top young stars – including Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jeff Skinner, Jordan Eberle and Adam Henrique – in order to keep them playing high-level hockey while the labour dispute drags on.

The Marlies, for example, will have as many as four players who likely would have started the season with the Maple Leafs on their roster when training camp opens Thursday (defencemen Jake Gardiner and Korbinian Holzer, netminder Ben Scrivens and forward Nazem Kadri).

They also have the vast majority of the same lineup that made the Calder Cup final a year ago, as part of a run that began drawing in fans last spring.

"We had a full building throughout the playoffs, and it's just carried over so well," said Marlies director of business operations Mike Cosentino, who noted the AHL team has sold all its rink-side board advertising and hit a new high in sponsorships.

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Eight years ago, the last NHL lockout had a dramatic effect on hockey's top minor-league circuit as future stars such as Eric Staal, Zach Parise, Jason Spezza, Ryan Miller, Ryan Kesler, Mike Cammalleri and Patrice Bergeron all played a full season in the AHL.

Attendance jumped nearly 7 per cent league-wide, and media outlets that had traditionally ignored the AHL were suddenly covering it full time.

That effect wasn't felt in Toronto, though, as the Marlies didn't arrive from St. John's until a year later. Ever since, they've struggled to find a niche in a market dominated by the Leafs, posting significant losses and low attendance until their on-ice success late last season.

Having served in a variety of roles with both the Leafs and Marlies since 2005, Eakins first caught a glimpse of the Marlies' financial situation when he was in a player development role and sat in on high-level meetings.

What he learned wasn't pretty. "This team has been bleeding," he said.

When he was named the team's head coach three years ago, however, Eakins made helping fill the building one of his priorities and, in co-operation with Maple Leafs management, has been trying to get the word out.

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While some of the team's early success at the gate this season will likely be the result of the lockout, Eakins hopes people like what they see and continue to come out even when the Leafs return.

"I watch these guys train," Eakins said. "They're dying for a shot. They want to play hard. And when you see them put in so much work and then you roll into buildings and there's like 2,000 people there, it hurts your heart a little bit.

"I want more people to see what's going on in this league. Our run last year was great for our players and … we're hopeful that's how it's going to go this year. Especially with the lockout on. Yeah, there's no hockey in the NHL – we all know that – but there certainly is hockey in Toronto."

Notable NHLers assigned to play in the AHL this season Jordan Eberle, Jeff Skinner, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Adam Henrique, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Alexander Burmistrov, Braden Holtby, Jake Gardiner, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Justin Faulk, Slava Voynov, Nick Leddy, Ryan Johansen, Travis Hamonic, Cody Hodgson

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