With the lockout over, Aaron Powers takes a look at what we lost and where we go from here.
On Saturday, January 19, 2013, the speakers high above Boston’s TD Garden blared the Dropkick Murphys’ “The Boys are Back,” welcoming the hometown Bruins to the ice. The boys were back, and all across North America, eager NHL fans were finally able to witness the puck drop on the 2012-2013, well, the 2013 season anyway.
After signing a new 10-year Collective Bargaining Agreement – the longest CBA in league history – on January 12th, the players and owners are now able to focus on putting a quality product out on the ice. With apologetic statements from both the owners and Commissioner Gary Bettman – this the third lockout of his tenure – it seems the only direction to move is forward. Anxious players, some of whom spent the lockout playing in Europe, are back in their home sweaters. So, after losing 510 regular season games to the labor stoppage, what is to be expected of a 48-game season for each team?
Before we move forward, let’s take a step back and look at what was lost. First, the major realignment plan the NHL Board of Governors approved in 2011 had to be shelved. This means that, for the shortened 2013 season, teams like the WInnipeg Jets will continue to take marathon trips to their fellow Southeast Division cities of Raleigh, D.C., Tampa, and Sunrise, Florida. On the other hand, the loss of inter-conference play will at least keep the Jets from having to fly to L.A. or Vancouver. If and when realignment takes place for the 2013-2014 season, geography should be much kinder to all NHL teams.
Secondly, the NHL Winter Classic and 2013 All-Star Game have both been canceled. The Winter Classic was scheduled to be played at the “Big House” in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and feature the Detroit Red Wings versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. By filling the 109,901 seat Michigan Stadium, this Winter Classic stood to be the most profitable ever. Due to its contract with the University of Michigan, though, the NHL had to cancel the marquee match-up by November 2nd to avoid additional expenses and in the process made the Classic the first casualty of the lockout. Fortunately for the League, the game is rescheduled for 2014.
Not so fortunate was the city of Columbus, OH, host of the 2013 NHL All-Star Game. Averaging only 80% capacity for home games, the Blue Jackets could’ve used the boost in hockey awareness in the city that would have come from hosting the ASG. Now, with the Olympic Winter Games set for next year, Columbus won’t get another shot at the ASG until 2015. For those fans who like collecting irrelevant and discontinued merchandise, check eBay or Dick’s Sporting Goods for heavily discounted 2013 ASG t-shirts.
So with a regular season scheduled from January 19th to April 27th, what teams will be ready for the sprint to the playoffs? Last year’s Stanley Cup Winners, the Los Angeles Kings, started the season 0-2 and had their banner-raising night ruined by the 2010 Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks. Another favorite in the West, the Vancouver Canucks, are still figuring out who is going to play at goalie and, because of the lockout, were unable to field trade offers for former No.1 Roberto Luongo. In the East, the New York Rangers added more firepower by signing forward Rick Nash in the offseason, but saw their season start 0-2 before coming away with an OT win against Boston on Wednesday. And Toronto surprised everyone by relieving GM Brian Burke of his duties just days before the season began. Not having made the playoffs since before the last lockout in 2004-05, perhaps the Leafs are hoping this lockout has reversed their fortunes.
With a shortened regular season and players figuring out their team identities and roles following truncated training camps, it’s hard to say which teams will best adapt. More importantly for the League, there was a fear about whether fans would return to their seats. But with 13,000 people showing up in Minnesota for a Wild scrimmage, the die-hards simply seem to be relieved that hockey is back. And perhaps that bodes well for teams like Minnesota, who have never made the Cup Finals and who signed superstars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to mega-contracts over the summer. The last time there was a 48-game regular season, back in 1994-95, the New Jersey Devils won their first Stanley Cup in their first Finals appearance.
The bottom line for this NHL season is that the lockout is over and the Stanley Cup Playoffs sit a mere three months away. It’s up to the owners and players to cooperate on things like salaries and trades so that corner office decisions don’t spill out onto the ice again. The fans have returned and the next decade looks bright, as long as any lingering negative emotions from the labor talks can be put to rest. If the game continues to grow in popularity and exposure, as it did after the 04-05 lockout, then when this season is looked back on in 2023, hopefully it can be called the beginning of new era in hockey.
Photo: AP/Jae C. Hong