Harvard and the Boogeyman

Will it be the Aeros' brawler or brainiac who gets to the NHL?

Low turnout in the early season could be a result of the holidays and the obvious focus on the region's dominant sport: football, Lynn says. "But I'm not unhappy with the attendance so far. I think we'll look to the post-Christmas numbers as a better indication of the health of the team."

Organizers plan to add a curtain covering the upper deck to lessen some of the tomblike atmosphere of the Toyota Center.

"We look at it as a 9,800-seat arena," he says. To break even, an AHL game generally needs to draw 4,800 paying customers; the Aeros average 4,354, putting their attendance in the lower half of the league's 28 teams.

Once the NHL either endures or averts the looming strike, many hockey insiders expect a local group to attempt to bring an NHL team here. If Houston does land a franchise, the Wild will relocate the Aeros.

Supporters of a Houston NHL team cite the availability of corporate season-ticket buyers who shun the Aeros, and point to the success of the Stars in Dallas. Skeptics note that the Stars moved to Dallas (from Minnesota) as a ready-made Stanley Cup contender, providing a bandwagon that likely wouldn't occur in Houston. They also say the Rockets, whose NBA championships are not that far in the past, are also struggling mightily to fill the new arena.

At any rate, no NHL team is likely to move here for at least two or three years, Lynn says. So until then it will be the Aeros, and their group of young hopefuls.

"It's not a bad life, playing in the AHL," says Oklobzija. "It's a pretty good way to make a living if you're a decent player." Stars can make six-figure salaries, he says. François Coulombe, who follows the business of hockey for the Web site www.hockeyzoneplus.com, says a mid-level AHL player who's been drafted relatively high probably makes around $70,000 a year. (Boogaard makes $45,000; Bala won't say what he makes.)

Most Aeros players, like Bala and Boogaard, live in Stafford, near the team's practice facility. The days are mostly taken up with hockey, but the airliner travel to away games is not as brutal as the dreary 16-hour bus trips Boogaard cramped his way through in Canada.

Of the 25 players on the Aeros' roster, "three or four maybe" might end up having a long NHL career, says Oklobzija. "It's Triple-A -- a lot of those guys are never going to get out of there."

The Aero players, of course, can't afford to believe that just yet. So they keep plugging away, offering entertaining hockey along the way.

That's what was offered on that recent Friday night at the Toyota Center, when each collision echoed forlornly in the vacant expanse.

The Aeros had an eight-game losing streak hanging over them, but their recently porous defense had transformed itself against the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. Boogaard got some shifts on the ice and -- jostling, shoving and sticking a stray elbow into anyone who came within reach -- provided solid defense and protection for his teammates, if no thrills. He even avoided getting into any fights.

Actually, it was a victory of sorts just to get a shift or two, since Cincinnati doesn't have the type of enforcer that Boogaard is usually assigned to deal with. "Just the fact I was out there shows [the coach] has trust in me, and that's good," he says.

With the score tied late in the third period, Bala got control of the puck in the Ducks' zone after an errant pass. He raced down the right side, his quickness leaving the Ducks flat-footed.

Teammate Matt Foy and Bala flew into a two-on-one against the Ducks. "I got into their zone, near the top of the circle, thinking I was going to pass it," Bala says. "Then the defenseman played the pass, and it gave me a lane to shoot."

Duck goalie Ilya Bryzgalov blocked the shot, but a still-sprinting Bala pounced on the rebound, poking it by him for the score.

Three minutes later he got an assist as Foy scored the goal that put the game away.

Boogaard was quietly effective that night; Bala was eye-catchingly brilliant for brief moments.

Which one makes it to the NHL and stays there -- if either of them does -- wasn't decided that night. That will be determined by a lot more games, requiring a lot more effort and sacrifice, always just one step away from the big time.

And it all will be played out, most likely, in front of a lot of empty seats.

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