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For those missing NHL, plenty of nearby opportunities exist

| Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, 9:24 p.m.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's Trevor Smith (left) and Eric Tangradi celebrate. (Submitted)
Fans cheer at WesBanco Arena in Wheeling. (Submitted)

Missing hockey?

You aren't alone, nor are you without options.

With the NHL seemingly on the fast track to canceling a second season in less than a decade, fan unrest is reaching unprecedented levels.

Fans miss watching Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin perform, miss heading Uptown for games at Consol Energy Center.

But for some fans, what truly is missing is a Saturday night hockey game. For those fans, the lockout calls for an audible, not a separation from hockey.

All across the state and the tri-state area, hockey carries on.

“I know it isn't the NHL,” said Penguins prospect Carl Sneep, who played an NHL game last season but now finds himself playing for the Penguins' ECHL affiliate Wheeling Nailers because of the logjam of defensemen playing at Wilkes-Barre of the AHL. “But there is still something fun about playing here, and there is still good hockey here in a good building. It's worth coming.”

For fans suffering from Penguins' withdrawal more than hockey itself, two legitimate options exist. Wheeling is an hour drive from Pittsburgh, isn't a difficult ticket to attain and is filled with players hoping to play in Pittsburgh someday.

“The atmosphere is good,” Sneep said. “People get into the games. It's been great.”

The drive to Wilkes-Barre is considerably longer — about four hours longer — but plenty of Pittsburghers already have made the trip this season. Forward Eric Tangradi and defenseman Simon Despres almost are certain to land roster spots with the Penguins should an NHL season take place anytime soon.

Until then, those two, along with first-round draft picks Joe Morrow and Beau Bennett, are polishing their skills in the AHL.

“There is no shortage in talent here,” Tangradi said. “Guys like Beau and Joe are fun to watch, and they're going to be NHL players. We love seeing fans from Pittsburgh come up here.”

Wheeling and Wilkes-Barre are easy solutions for Penguins' fans to get their fix, but some other options have become fashionable.

Although fans aren't showing up in droves yet — plenty of seats usually are available — a steady flow of Pittsburghers are making their way north on Interstate 79 to Erie. After all, the player who might well become hockey's next superstar is only a two-hour drive away.

Connor McDavid, the 15-year-old wunderkind to whom Sidney Crosby compared himself in a recent interview with the Tribune-Review, has taken the Ontario Hockey League by storm.

The favorite to become the top pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, McDavid oozes star power, and a steady stream of Penguins fans can be found at each Erie home game.

“I love that I'm only two hours from Pittsburgh,” said McDavid, who idolizes Crosby. “It's a great hockey town, and I'm adjusting to life in Erie. It's been really good here. I love playing in front of our fans.”

The fans love watching McDavid, too. Even Crosby recently commented that he has watched two of McDavid's games on television and marvels at his ability to thrive in the OHL at age 15.

“I can see why people would go want to see him play,” Crosby said.

There are other options as well. Short drives to Youngstown and Johnstown provide entertaining, inexpensive evenings at the rink and some iconic settings.

“People just love hockey,” Tangradi said.

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media and can be reached at jyohe@tribweb.com.

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