With the lockout official as of midnight last night, the guessing game as to when the season will start begins in earnest. Through all of this, there have been many factors that have gotten the league to its current position, but a few have stood out among the others.
1. The Extra $1 Billion in Revenues
When the league came out of its lost season in 2004-05, the owners fought hard for the deal that was struck. The lasting reminder of that process is the salary cap, which has steadily crept upwards every year since.
Yet that CBA never imagined the type of growth the league would see in the past few years.
With the amount of growth the NHL has enjoyed as of late, it is imperative for the players and the owners to get their fair shares of the new found revenues. Many may debate exactly what each side's fair share is exactly, but each side does have one.
The extra $1 billion in the coffers may seem like a good problem to have, and it is, but it also has led to the argument that has now befallen the league:
Who should get what?
The owners are the risk takers; the players are the reason the games get played and the fans show up.
What is lost in all of this is that it is the fans that have created this extra scratch. The owners can take all the risks and the players can give a dazzling show, but if they do not have anyone to watch them the league can't flourish.
The main source of the extra cash is the deal signed with NBC last season that brings in about $200 million annually. NBC was willing to put up this kind of money because of the fans and their devotion to the sport.
The deal has certainly been a positive for the league, and gave fans the ability to watch every Stanley Cup Playoff game for the first time. The players certainly cannot complain about the deal, although some will argue that having to talk to Pierre McGuire is not worth it.
What the players did complain about was the new conference and playoff structure proposed during last season, with the old, two division format returning, and the first and second rounds being intra-division meetings.
Under the realignment, travel would have been substantially decreased for all teams, saving many teams a lot of costs (and thus leaving the owners with more money). All that would have been at the expense of some of the better and fledgling rivalries in the game that the players love playing in. By only playing non-divisional teams twice, the budding Chicago-Vancouver and St. Louis-Los Angeles contests will lose their luster.
Older, more established rivalries such as Boston-NY Rangers and Buffalo-Philadelphia will also become less important.
The NHLPA's official reasoning for not approving the plan was that they were not involved in the planning process and would like to be involved starting this season, with any approved plans taking effect next season. But it can be inferred that the players took offense to the owners muddying the game in order to save a few bucks, especially when Mike Ilitch's Detroit Red Wings were the ones pushing the hardest for the plan.
So, again, say what you will about who should get what, the extra money has caused a rift between the two sides that must be bridged to see hockey this year.
2. Gary Bettman
Yes, many are quick to jump on Gary Bettman for his role in all of this.
The players despise him. The owners have him on a leash.
His job is to advocate for the league, which is the contingent of owners, but the fact remains that this is his third lockout during his tenure.
The NHL has had 4 such occurrences.
That's a pretty bad stat line.
This is not to say that any of this is directly his fault. He is not the owners. He does not make the decisions for the owners, he merely communicates them to the rest of the NHL community (i.e. the players and the fans).
The problem most have with him is his demeanor and the way he communicates things.
A few days before the lockout became official Sunday morning, he came out and stated that no one wanted a deal more than he did and that he felt horrible about what was happening.
The players lashed back at this during their news conference with NHLPA head Don Fehr.
This included star goalie Ryan Miller, who asked if the owners have been running at a loss for so long, why does Bettman still have a job?
It's a fair point, and leads one to think that the owners are exaggerating their plight a bit to the media.
However, Bettman has been such a derisive figure to NHL fans since he took office in 1993. His first year in office saw a lockout. The game became a farce in the late 90s and early 2000s, slowing to a snail's pace. The lost season in 2004-05.
The head injury issues currently plaguing the league.
The job is thankless, but Bettman has done little to help himself through all of this. Some may even wonder if the players are taking the hard line stance they are just to spite him.
But, in reality, when you cannot rollover a single CBA without a lockout, you have failed your fans and your owners, never mind the players. Despite the high-level at which he plays their lackey, Bettman should face the ax from the owners once this is all figured out.
3. Assumptive Owners
There have been a few articles around the blogosphere citing rabid fans as a cause of the lockout.
That's not only off-putting to those who love the game, it's an incorrect characterization. The fans are certainly the ones that make the NHL world go round, but the fact that they're willing to spend money to support their team is not a problem.
The problem is that the owners think that they can count on this sort of support no matter what happens.
Is it an incorrect belief? Probably not.
But that shouldn't discourage the fan that lives and breathes the game. The owners should be more accountable to the fans that support not only their team, but the owners themselves.
And the owners may be counting their ducks before they hatch at this point anyway.
What did the game bring after the last lockout? A salary cap that theoretically leveled the playing field for the smaller market teams.
This was realized immediately with the success of the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes, and a Buffalo-Carolina Eastern Conference Final and an Edmonton-Anaheim Western Conference Final. More fans were immediately more invested in their teams. The Nashville Predators were a contender for the first time. Dallas continued their strong play.
The league also saw a whole slew of rule changes to promote a faster, more scoring-oriented game. The New Jersey trap needed to die a fast death since its inception, but lingered until after the lockout. Once the obstruction rules were passed, along with the shootout (which still has its detractors) and the abolition of the two-line pass, the game opened up.
Scoring increased and even a casual fan could not deny the game had become great once again.
What can they bring this time? League parity is at an all-time high, with the Kings' Stanley Cup victory as an eighth seed a shining example of that. The game has succumbed to the clutching and grabbing a bit, but the game remains much more wide open than it was prior to the 2004-05 lockout.
So what can they do to bring fans back as quickly?
The answer is not much. This is why it is so important for this to be a brief blip for the league and not a prolonged affair like the last lockout, or even the NFL and NBA lockouts last season.
The owners are banking on a similar reaction this time, mainly because most feel (rightly or wrongly so) that they are in the wrong here, but the situation in 2004-05 is not the same as it is now. Fans will leave and the owners' assertion that the current growth of the league is unsustainable will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If only they did not take the fans, especially the die hard ones, for granted, maybe then they could see that any deal is better than none at all.