JACKSON, Miss. With the NHL's season wiped out, Bates Battaglia went back to the bush leagues.
The seventh-year forward joined a growing number of top-level players in the low-profile ECHL when he signed with the Mississippi Sea Wolves.
The ECHL has been a steppingstone for players starting their professional careers. But with a labor dispute erasing the NHL season and with few other ways for players to keep their skills sharp and competitive juices flowing the open-for-business ECHL has become an attractive option for veterans, too.
''It's been tough sitting out this long. That's why I'm down here,'' Battaglia said. ''I get to hang out with the boys again, which I haven't been doing since we've been not playing. It's good to be back in the locker room, and it should be a good time.''
Battaglia, a forward with the Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche last season, became the 10th player on an NHL roster last year to join the ECHL when he signed Feb. 21 with the Biloxi-based Sea Wolves.
Among the others are New Jersey Devils center Scott Gomez, the NHL's rookie of the year in 2000 and a two-time Stanley Cup winner who signed with the Alaska Aces, and Chicago Blackhawks forward Curtis Brown, who is with the San Diego Gulls.
And that list doesn't include veterans such as Dave Karpa, the former New York Rangers tough guy who played in Russia last season and is now with the Gulls.
ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna expects as many as 15 NHL players to join his league.
While awareness of his league has been raised, that hasn't been reflected at the box office yet. He credited a 5 percent increase in attendance to individual teams' marketing efforts, not NHL players.
Still, ''having these guys in our league has raised the profile of our league and given us some additional coverage,'' McKenna said.
The players are trickling into the league midway through the season, when teams have vacancies because of call-ups and injuries. That means ECHL veterans aren't losing their jobs to the newcomers.
''The timing of some of these guys coming to our league has been ideal,'' McKenna said.
The NHL players are making fractions of their normal salaries. Gomez made $1 million with the Devils last season and would have made $2.9 million this year. Battaglia made $935,000 while splitting last season between the Capitals and Avalanche.
Both players are making $500 a week in the ECHL.
''I'm more here just to play and have a good time,'' Battaglia said. ''It's not really about the money right now. If it was ... it's a lot different than what it would be in the NHL.''
The players say they chose the ECHL over other minor leagues because of family and geography.
Gomez was a high school star in Anchorage. Karpa lives about an hour north of San Diego in Newport Beach, Calif., and said playing for the Gulls was ''convenient I can be with my family.''
Meanwhile, Battaglia was eager to play alongside his younger brother, Anthony, for the first time.
Early in the season, Anthony Battaglia mentioned a roster opening on the Sea Wolves to his big brother but Bates scoffed. Instead, he worked out with several former Carolina teammates hoping for a resolution to the lockout.
Days after the season was called off, he signed with the Sea Wolves.
''It got down to the wire and turned out we're not going to be playing,'' Bates Battaglia said. ''I felt, maybe if they're still interested I'll come down and play with my brother which I've never done and play some competitive hockey.''
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