WHEELING - As word continues to leak that the end to the ridiculous NHL lockout may be drawing near, hockey fans throughout the world are understandably beginning to get excited for the first time in months. But there are plenty of hockey players, whether pushed down a league or forced out of the minor leagues all together, that are following every word the game's top scribes are penning.
For instance, take Wheeling Nailers defenseman Carl Sneep. A victim of a numbers game with the Pittsburgh Penguins affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Sneep has spent the last 23 games biding his time at WesBanco Arena.
The end of the lockout would almost immediately signal his last game in the ECHL.
''I don't really know exactly what's going on but you hear things,'' Sneep said. ''It seems like a lot of positive stuff is happening now and hopefully they can get a deal done soon.
''That would probably mean I wouldn't be here anymore, but that's what I want - to be back at Wilkes-Barre at the next level.''
Don't misunderstand. That's not a knock on Wheeling or the time Sneep has spent here. It's merely a case of a young man trying to advance his career.
However, even he admits it would be a bit difficult leaving a group of guys he's gotten to know well while contributing 12 points (2g-10a) and a plus-9 rating.
''There's good guys on this team and I've had some fun getting to know some guys,'' Sneep said. ''If it gets to the point I'm leaving, I would wish them luck and hopefully keep in touch with them to see how the season goes.
''It's not a mystery how many defensemen there are in Wilkes-Barre. I think there's still nine and that's typically more than you carry. It's partially a numbers thing, and there's parts of my games defensively they want me to work on - finishing plays, being better on the penalty kill.
''I've been working on those things while I've been here so that if I get the opportunity to go back up, I will be better because of my time here.''
He probably won't be the only to go. Guys like Scott Zurevinski, Luke Pither, Cody Chupp, Chris Barton and Peter Merth could all get looks in the AHL. That makes life exceedingly more difficult for an ECHL coach like Wheeling's Clark Donatelli, who already has so much on his plate.
''You start running the numbers. As soon as it ends, just looking at the waiver wire, guys who are on entry-level contracts, I think three guys have to go up and clear waivers,'' Donatelli said. ''If my math's right, that's three defensemen that would go up.
''I've got to talk to Wilkes-Barre to see what's the latest with them. We're constantly re-arranging our board with Wilkes-Barre, but we've got to factor in two more teams with Montreal and (Pittsburgh). It does get crazy.''
The area Wheeling would seem to have an advantage in the case of call-ups, is at goaltender. The Nailers already have Scott Darling and Peter Delmas splitting time, while Patrick Killeen, who was on the ice Thursday, is working his way back from a fractured hand.
''That's a good numbers problem because we've got three good goaltenders. How long that's going to last I don't know,'' Donatelli said. ''We keep a close eye on Hamilton. I'm in close contact with them to see what they're doing. Usually those things pan themselves out.
''That's a good situation for us to be in.''
In addition, the team looks to be getting healthy. Forward Ben Farrer (two), Zack Torquato (six), Adam Payerl (one), Reid McNeill (12) and Chupp (21), who have all been beset by injuries for a large portion of the season, are close to returning with fresh legs.
''Payerl is a really good, strong skater and is getting there and is really close,'' Donatelli said. ''Torquato is really close also, and it looks like Benny will be going this weekend. He's a good defensive forward for us, a guy who can put the puck in the net and he's a guy who wants to be out there late in games. We've kind of lacked that aspect. He takes pride in that and I think that's going to button itself up and it's going to help our penalty kill.''
The number of games, or lack thereof, that group has played, is not lost on the coach.
''We're 31 games into it and some of the guys have only played five, six games,'' Donatelli said. ''When they come back healthy it's going to be refreshing for us. Some of our really good core players who are coming back.
''We're looking good if all the stars line up.''
Shawn Rine can be reached via e-mail at Rine@theintelligencer.net