ATLANTIC CITY - Dwayne Michalski looked up at the banner for the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies' 2003 Kelly Cup championship and couldn't believe it had been 10 years.
The Bullies are long gone, but hockey was alive for an announced crowd of 4,005 at Boardwalk Hall on Sunday.
The Bridgeport Sound Tigers scored a late goal to beat the Albany Devils 5-4 in an American Hockey League game that whetted fans' appetites for the NHL, which will start an abbreviated season Saturday after a 113-day lockout.
"It makes (Sunday's game) a little better," said Michalski, a 51-year-old Galloway Township resident who wore his Bullies jersey to the game. "I was going nuts (over the lockout). I almost can't wait till Saturday."
The Bullies, who played in the ECHL, left town in 2005 for Stockton, Calif. Atlantic City has not had a professional hockey team since then.
But Albany, the AHL affiliate of the New Jersey Devils, is hosting four games at the Hall this season. The first was a loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Nov. 25. Albany will host the Adirondack Phantoms next Sunday and the Hershey Bears on Feb. 24.
State officials, including Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, have said they hope strong turnouts at these games could lead the Devils to relocate their AHL franchise to Atlantic City. Albany had the league's lowest attendance last season.
The crowd Sunday was not particularly loud or enthusiastic. But the attendance figures were a huge impmrovement over the 2,803 who watched the November game.
"I was kind of surprised (by the crowd)," Michalski said. "Happily surprised."
Most fans were decked out in Devils apparel, but a few had jerseys of the New York Islanders - Bridgeport's NHL affiliate - the Philadelphia Flyers and the Boardwalk Bullies.
"You can tell fans missed the game," said Albany's Kelly Zajac, who had one goal and one assist in the game. "We have a good crowd out here in A.C., and you can tell there's lots of Devils jerseys out there. It helped us out, I think."
The November game featured NHL players such as Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson, since players on entry-level contracts were eligible to be assigned to AHL teams during the lockout.
The NHL players are gone, with training camps having started in preparation for the season. But that didn't take away from the experience, fans said.
"We're all here to watch hockey, right?" said Josh Gotwals, 37, a former Bullies season-ticket holder from Margate.
Players getting called up to the NHL created opportunities for other players such as Zajac, the younger brother of New Jersey Devils forward Travis Zajac. Kelly Zajac was called up from the Trenton Titans of the ECHL earlier Sunday. Last season, Kelly Zajac helped Union College win the ECAC championship at the Hall.
"We lost eight guys (to the NHL), so obviously it's going to affect you, but we knew it was coming," Albany coach Rick Kowalsky said. "It's opportunities for guys."
While some fans expressed lingering frustration about the lockout, the general vibe is better about the sport now that it's over. The next time Albany plays at the Hall, the NHL season will have begun.
"I think if you're a hockey fan, you get angry about the situation, but hopefully (the fans) come back," Kowalsky said. "They're passionate fans."
Notes: Albany trailed 4-2 with five minutes left Sunday but tied it on goals by Joe Whitney and Chris McKelvie in a span of 1 minute, 32 seconds. Bridgeport's Matt Donovan scored the eventual game-winner with 1:16 left. ... Nino Niederreiter scored twice for Bridgeport, which also got goals from Aaron Ness and Blair Riley. ... Phil DeSimone scored Albany's other goal.
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