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Charlotte Checkers in OKC – November 12, 2011.

The Charlotte Checkers blog Chasing Checkers and I shared team information in mid-September and upon the first meeting of the two teams this season in Charlotte I thought now would be a good time to learn more about Charlotte and their AHL team. We had also talked about Jeff Skinner coming to the Checkers, but alas, that never happened, however, that has not stopped the Checkers from being a powerful force in the AHL this season. They currently stand at the top of not only the South Division and the Western Conference, but also at the top of the entire AHL standings with 17 games played and a record of 12-3-0-2. OKC currently stands at 2nd in the South Division with 16 games played (9-5-1-1) and comes in at 4th in the Western Conference.

See the Edmonton Oilers for the Preview: Barons at Charlotte for game day information and game feed and radio links.

See also Chasing Checkers (@ChasingCheckers) Gameday — Oklahoma City Barons at Charlotte Checkers.

Chasing Checkers:

PT: Please tell us a bit about the Charlotte Checkers: its history, the city and their NHL affiliate. The Checkers were relocated to Charlotte in the 2010-11 season. 

Chasing Checkers: Professional hockey has been in Charlotte since the 1950’s.  When the Baltimore Clippers arena burned down, the team needed a place to play their last games of the season, and chose Charlotte.  The team relocated to Charlotte the following year, and soon changed their name to the Checkers.  Leagues changed, but for the most part there was professional hockey in Charlotte until the mid-1970’s.  In 1993, an ECHL version of the Checkers came to town and had a successful run for nearly two decades.  In 2010, the Checkers owner Michael Kahn bought the AHL’s Albany RiverRats and relocated them, changing their name to the beloved Checkers that was so well known for decades.

The Checkers are the affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, which is incredibly convenient.  Carolina coaches and upper management make frequent appearances at Checkers games and practices, and the close distance of the teams enables them to monitor each other closely, especially with player development and sharing common systems.

PT: You too have an NBA team as competition. Has that caused any difficulties?

Chasing Checkers: Charlotte is, unfortunately, full of fair weather fans of all sports.  The Bobcats have not seen a lot of success on the court in recent years (I believe they broke a record for the worst record of all time in the NBA last season!) but their owner, Michael Jordan, seems to be trying improve things.  The Checkers share an arena, and are definitely the less-important of the pair, but overall it works.  The Bobcats seem to be working harder to build the relationship between hockey and basketball fans.  Last year, they had a successful doubleheader between hockey and basketball, and have two more planned for this season.

PT: How are fans reacting to the Checkers placement in the West and now South Division? They were moved from the Midwest Division to the South Division in the AHL Western Conference for this season. Being placed in the new South Division with OKC, San Antonio, Texas and Houston has to be tough since you are so far away.

Chasing Checkers: You know, I don’t know how others feel.  To me, it seems a bit unfair to have the Checkers continually bouncing around divisions.  It doesn’t let a new team create any real rivalries, and that’s hard.  From a purely name recognition standpoint, playing the teams in the new South division is great.  Three of the four have NBA teams, which will help with the basketball crowd.  From a name-recognition standpoint, it’s a definite plus over playing some of the small market teams in the East like Charlotte did during its first AHL season.

Last year’s schedule was tough for the Checkers, and adapting to the travel of the Western conference was a big part of why I think the team missed the playoffs by only one point after being a dominant force for most of the season.  I wish the schedule was more balanced AHL-wide.  Charlotte has never played Toronto, Hamilton Rochester or St. John’s.  This year, fortunately, the team faces only one Eastern conference team, the Norfolk Admirals, and with a new affiliate, it’s unlikely they will have the same caliber of team that won the Calder Cup last year.

PT: What will the Checkers team look like this season? Who are your returning players and which players should OKC fans watch when they visit OKC?

Chasing Checkers: Charlotte is going to be awesome this season, with very few new faces.  Goaltender John Muse, who won two NCAA Championships with Boston College and an ECHL Kelly Cup championship last year with the Everblades, will share time between the pipes with returning goalie Justin Peters.  Charlotte’s captain Brett Sutter returns to the Checkers.  He’s a huge asset to the team in terms of leadership and on-ice toughness.  Another great leader is Nic Blanchard, who serves as an Alternate captain.  Blanchard has more heart and soul on and off the ice than just about anyone out there.  He’s been with the Hurricanes organization since he was drafted, and was a victim in the horrific Albany River Rats bus crash, missing half of a season before recovering.

On the forward lines, the ever-amazing offensive forces of Jerome Samson, Zac Dalpe and Zach Boychuk all return to the Checkers.  All of these guys spent a significant amount of time last year in the NHL.  Other notables include Chris Terry who was resigned by the Hurricanes as an RFA, and is consistently a top point-scorer on the team.

Charlotte’s defense continues to be an incredible developmental pool of Hurricanes prospects.  Bobby Sanguinetti probably would have played with the Hurricanes this year, but returns to the Checkers for the third season along with Brett Bellemore and Michal Jordan.  Rasmus Rissanen and Justin Krueger will be AHL sophomore’s this year, and I’d expect great things from these stay-at-home defensemen.

PT: I will miss seeing Michael Murphy visit OKC. He signed with Spartak Moscow this summer. What other players did you lose over the summer and how do you feel about the new additions to your team for the coming season? [Update: Murphy was released by Spartak Moskva earlier this month.]

Chasing Checkers: Losing Mike Murphy was a tough blow to me, both personally and as a fan of the Checkers, but he seems to be doing great in the KHL, and he’s learning a lot, which is why he wanted to go there to begin with.  Charlotte lost only a small handful of players.  A few RFA’s who weren’t resigned by Carolina, plus veteran UFA Chris Durno.  Drayson Bowman, who spent most of the past two seasons in Charlotte, is the only player Carolina was worried about exposing to waivers last week, so he is not eligible to play in the AHL at this time.

Justin Faulk played briefly with the Checkers and will return this year as a result of the lockout.  Other new veteran faces include goaltender Dan Ellis, who was just signed to a PTO with the Checkers, Marc-Andre Gragnani and Tim Wallace.  There are a lot of rookie faces who will be starting their first full season in the AHL.  Some of those include NCAA standout Jeremy Welsh who led his Union College to their first-ever frozen four berth last season, and Austin Levi and Beau Schmitz, a pair of American defenseman from the Plymouth Whalers.  The Checkers currently have 34 players eligible to play in the AHL plus a couple of camp invites, so it’s going to be tough competition to make the AHL team this year.

PT: The Checkers are very lucky in that their NHL team resides very close to home in Raleigh, about 3 hours from Charlotte. For us, being about 2 days away from Edmonton by car, and 5 to 9 hours by flight, this seems like an amazing luxury! Do many Checkers fans attend the Canes games, and vice versa?

Chasing Checkers: Weekend games are full of Hurricanes season ticket holders, and I’d guess that this number will increase a great deal because Charlotte is the closest professional hockey to Raleigh.  In the past, the Checkers have hosted some bus trips to Raleigh for NHL games.

Last season, the Checkers had more crossover AHL/NHL events than ever before.  The Hurricanes played a preseason game to a huge crowd in Charlotte last September and hoped to do the same this year but hosting the Democratic National Convention made arena scheduling impossible for a repeat of a preseason game (and now that the NHL preseason has been cancelled, it’s a moot point anyway!)

For the first time this year, the Checkers will travel to the PNC Arena in Raleigh for a game in January, which should be exciting.  I’m planning to attend, and looking forward to their press box popcorn… it’s quite tasty!

PT: Who should OKC fans follow for Checkers’ news and updates, both blogs, Main Stream Media and twitter? (Including your own blog).

Chasing Checkers: Chasing Checkers is entering its third season, and I’m pretty proud of where it’s come from and all of the opportunities yet to come.  I try and get to a handful of road games each year which is always fun because I get to see different arenas and fan reactions, and I’ve gotten to know some of the great AHL writers that cover teams throughout the league.

To my knowledge, there is not another Checkers blog, though some of the Hurricanes ones offer great AHL coverage from time to time.  The ones I’d suggest are @CanesCountry (www.canescountry.com) and Sun Belt Hockey has a lot of AHL coverage  http://thehockeywriters.com/shj/category/carolina-hurricanes/

As far as the team, there are a handful of key people to follow.

  • Mike Lappan (@MikeLappan) is the VP of Communication and Outreach, and lover of ketchup chips.
  • Paul Branecky (@PaulBranecky) is the Director of Digital Media, and brings an incredible writing background to the front office.
  • Jason Shaya (@Jason_Shaya) is the voice of the Checkers and a goaltender.
  • If you want to follow the players, the Checkers currently have 16 with Twitter accounts, and you can see all of their handles at http://gocheckers.com/fanzone/socialmedia/

Unfortunately, Charlotte doesn’t have a beat writer with the local paper, but it’s worth following Chip Alexander from the Raleigh News & Observer (@ice_chip) as he frequently covers the AHL team in addition to the Hurricanes.

PT: Tell us a bit about yourself and how long have you been following hockey?

Chasing Checkers: I’m a bit of an artist in the real world, working as a head electrician and lighting designer here in Charlotte.  Hockey has always provided me the perfect release from artsy fartsy things that I spend most of my days doing and working with, and for that I’m grateful!

My first exposure to professional hockey was as a high school student in Charlotte when I attended my first ECHL Checkers game almost 20 years ago.  I didn’t really latch onto the sport until much later.  I was working for a NASCAR marketing agency and travelling to a lot of races, and began using the frequent travel as an excuse to catch NHL games in as many markets as possible.  I still follow the NHL to some extent, but the AHL has definitely taken over as my main interest.  The day after it was announced that Charlotte was upgrading to the AHL, I called the front office and ordered season tickets.  It’s been a great ride so far, and one I can’t wait to continue!

Charlotte Checkers in OKC – November 12, 2012