There is no way to hide it. It is an utter pain to be reading, interpreting and writing about NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s latest address regarding the specter of yet another lockout.
Based on what was reported on Thursday―namely that the NHL and NHLPA’s disagreements are plain as red lines and blue lines and that hockey cannot resume until there is a new agreement―there is simply no cause for complete assurance that the 2012-13 season will commence when it should.
Rather than dwell without details and rather than wonder aloud how this could possibly happen again, let us delve right into the five reasons why a work stoppage of any length in 2012-13 would batter the NHL worse than its 2004-05 predecessor.
If a season-killing lockout ever did need to happen, it might as well have been 2004-05. At least the NHL, upon its return to normal proceedings, was able to come right out and hold the draft that decided where “The Next One” was going to play.
Naturally, each of those players is only seven seasons into their respective careers. If all goes according to plan, they are no more than one-third of the way done.
Grant that their final career numbers may never measure up with Wayne Gretzky, but a lost season in their era would be akin to a lost season for Gretzky in the late 1980s. And a half- or full-season hiatus would all but kill any lingering hope of any of the league’s incumbent faces one day breaking any of Gretzky’s significant records.
A year ago at this time, the NFL was just returning from its work stoppage while the NBA still had its players locked out. Yet football came back in time to barely miss any training camp time and the NBA only lost two months of its regular season.
What would sports fans and commentators think of the NHL if, so soon after two of its continental cohabitants and competitors handled their labor matters in such an exemplary manner, regressed to its 2004-05 habits?
In the years leading up to the NHL’s 2004 work stoppage, Detroit was the only Original Six team with any certifiable relevance. The other three longest-tenured American franchises were habitually missing the playoffs or flaming out in the first round.
It didn’t help that other storied teams like Pittsburgh were not exactly benefitting from Mario Lemieux’s comeback the same way they were benefitting from him in the early 1990s.
More recently, though, the Penguins, Blackhawks and Bruins all directly preceded Los Angeles as Stanley Cup champions. The Kings, one of Pittsburgh’s classmates from 1967 expansion, have just made the game as relevant as ever in their massive market with their first Cup.
The New York Rangers, too, are certifiable contenders with a celestial 2005-06 rookie in Lundqvist backboning them.
Too much missed time and too much overnight change through a protracted nap could result in negative overhaul on some of these teams. Or, even if they come back with their contender’s core intact, a lengthy lockout could still result in a costly period of fan apathy.
The 2007-08 season, i.e. the third in the post-lockout era, rivaled the 2005-06 campaign in terms of the strides the NHL made en route to recovery.
Teams like Chicago, complete with a rookie tandem of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and Boston, with new head coach Claude Julien and power forward Milan Lucic, began to certifiably reinvigorate their respective markets.
Shortly before the season opened, the U.S. edition of the NHL Network debuted.
Then, on New Year’s Day of that season, there was the launch of a new annual ritual that spawns the never-tiring adage of “returning the game to its roots” and intertwining a given NHL team with one of its football or baseball neighbors.
The sixth Winter Classic is tentatively slated to pit the Red Wings and Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium on Jan. 1, 2013. Whether that is called off altogether or pushed off to Jan. 1, 2014, there will be lockout-induced losers if the game does not happen on its originally planned date.
Other prospective hosts and participants would potentially need to wait their turn a year longer than otherwise and the next Winter Classic might not carry the same luster as the NHL once again tries to recover an estranged fanbase.
The 2008 inception of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia and neighboring nations spawned arguably the NHL’s most formidable competitor for world-class players since the World Hockey Association.
Any work stoppage lasting more than a few months would most likely encourage players, particularly those hailing from KHL countries and other parts of Eastern Europe, to seek the next best thing. And unlike 2004-05, when NHL stars were scattered overseas only to return in October 2005, more may prefer to stay closer to home for the balance of their careers.
In turn, Bettman could be robbing himself of a chance to showcase some of the best specimens of established or rising hockey talent, thus trimming interest in his circuit.
As easy as it is to scoff at the idea of an Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin renouncing their NHL membership to play in their homeland, is that the sort of unlikely event you want Bettman and company to toy with?