In football country, the Oklahoma City Barons fly under the radar.
But this weekend, the Edmonton Oilers' young stars visiting Abbotsford, B.C., is a big deal.
During the NHL lockout, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Justin Schultz are playing in the American Hockey League. The nucleus of Edmonton's youth movement is made up of four of the most talented players currently playing in North America.
With no NHL games, Western Canada's media will flock to Abbotsford, near Vancouver, home of the NHL's Canucks.
“The guys are really excited to hit the road going out to Western Canada where there are a lot of family and friends for a lot of the guys,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “Anytime you go back to Canada to play, a lot of us are Canadians so it's a lot of fun. And we're playing a very good opponent.”
Off to a 6-1-0-2 start, the Abbotsford Heat, Calgary's AHL affiliate, has averaged around 4,500 fans. With the Barons in town, both games Friday and Saturday could approach sellouts in a 7,064-seat arena.
“It's going to be busy with media from what I've heard,” Nelson said. “Both teams will have a large contingency from their organizations there. It will be a lot of fun. It should be interesting.”
It will be a homecoming of sorts for Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft. His hometown, Burnaby, B.C., is a one-hour drive from Abbotsford. His parents, some friends and relatives will attend both games.
Several Barons players grew up in the Alberta or British Columbia, neighbor provinces in Western Canada.
“It will be nice to play in front of kind of a hometown crowd,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “A lot of guys are from (that area). ... And it's always good to get on the road and bond together. It's a good chance to build the team together.”
OKC's talented roster hasn't met expectations. The Barons are 5-4-0-1. They've had difficulty protecting third-period leads. Nelson said veteran team captain Josh Green being sidelined with sore ribs the past two weeks has been a factor.
“It's a very young team,” Nelson said. “Leadership has to come from within. Some of these guys are starting to take on that role. This is a great opportunity for them.”
BARONS AT ABBOTSFORD
When: 9 p.m. Friday, 9 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Abbotsford, B.C.
Radio: KGHM-1340 AM (Friday); KXXY-FM 96. 1 (Saturday)
Scouting report: Oklahoma City is viewed as the most talented team in the American Hockey League during the NHL lockout but is off to a 5-4-0-1 start. Abbotsford is the hottest team in the Western Conference with 14 points (6-1-0-2). ... The Barons won the season series last year (6-2). ... OKC rookie defenseman Justin Schultz leads the AHL in scoring (15 points). Jordan Eberle (11 points), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (10) and Teemu Hartikainen (9) are off to good starts, but OKC's defense has failed to protect leads. ... The Barons are 29th in the 30-team AHL in penalty kills (71.1 percent). ... Abbotsford is led by center Roman Horak (11 points), left winger Sven Baertschi (11) and center Ben Walker (10). ... Heat goaltender Danny Taylor is 3-1-0-1 with a 1.97 GAA and 92.8 save percentage.