With not much to report on the hockey front, my thoughts turn to the future of the NHL. Eventually there will have to be hockey, right?
I'm not talking about a couple of months from now when this ridiculous work stoppage is an awful, awful memory. I'm talking about at least 10 years from now.
In 2022, the NHL will look different for sure. There will be a new generation of stars leading the push to make hockey relevant to the general public. Sidney Crosby will be able to grow a full mustache, your 2022-23 season will kick off in Japan with the defending Stanley Cup Champions the Seattle Grunge facing their nemesis from the cup final, the hated Columbus Blue Jackets.
Chris Chelios will begin his third year as player-coach of the Grunge, while reigning scoring leader Nino Niederreiter and Hart Trophy winner John Tavares will try to get their New York Islanders back to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Islanders' five-year run set a new gold standard for dynasties in the NHL, but were upset in the first round by the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs, who finally got into the playoffs after a 28-year absence from the postseason. Oh, and the Edmonton Oilers will "win" the draft lottery and get the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft for the 13th consecutive year in a row.
Obviously, I'm having some fun with some of my prognosticating here, though Tavares could certainly be a Hart Trophy candidate if he keeps getting better. A look back at the league 10 years ago would probably give a fairly accurate indication of how far the league has come, and where it can go.
2001-02 saw the Detroit Red Wings win their third Stanley Cup in five years, Jarome Iginla win the scoring title and Jose Theodore named as the league MVP. Yes. That Jose Theodore. Second-team All-Star Jose Theodore, league MVP.
The NHL appeared to be gaining momentum and closing in on the top three major sports leagues. They had a polarizing dynasty in Detroit, Mario Lemieux adorning the cover of EA Sports' video game, and not a single person thinking about the possibility of losing an entire season due to a work stoppage that would occur just three seasons later.
The biggest stars in the league right now fall between the ages of 27 (Alexander Ovechkin) and 21 (Tavares) with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux, Steven Stamkos, Phil Kessel, Jonathan Quick all in the middle of the two. Add 10 years to this core group of stars and you wonder what their legacy could be.
The era of the NHL superstar, which took a little vacation after the Gretzky, Lemieux, Messier and Yzerman period ended, is back on again. The faces are young and fan-friendly, playing the game at the highest level we have ever seen.
The future of hockey is not robots or glowing pucks. Fans don’t care about flashing lights, laser beams, bells and whistles. What appeals to the hockey fan is that the evolution of the game has been gradual and deliberate.
The games that you see from 40 years ago aren't much different from a game you could see today. The players are a little faster, and the skill has been honed with greater detail, but hockey has arguably the deepest traditional roots—save for baseball—of all the major sports.
The tradition of hockey and reverence to the history of the sport is something that almost every hockey fan understands and appreciates.
I look for a sport that will be basically the same 10 years from now. There will certainly be some revolutionary technology to improve the quality and durability of the equipment. There will definitely be strides in player protection that will make us wonder how we ever lived without it.
Continued advances in technology, nutrition and training will make the athletes stronger and faster and will take our collective breath away with the commitment to their craft.
The product on the ice should and will stay the same. Tweaks and adjustments to improve player safety like no-touch icing will be introduced to keep the stars upright and in the spotlight. There will be a legitimate league realignment that will make sense for everyone.
There will eventually be expansion to two more cities (Seattle, Quebec, Hamilton, to get the league to the 32-team four-division league that it wants. The product might be overextended in the minds of some, but there is enough talent to support two more teams.
The new collective bargaining agreement will include revenue sharing verbiage to support the franchises that need the help. Labor issues will be resolved with a profit-sharing plan that hovers right around the 50/50 share that it needs to be. The other issues on the table will work themselves out with some give and take on both sides.
The future that I want to see for the NHL is to finally market their product the right way. The Ovechkin/Crosby show has just about played itself out, and the league has to put their other stars out in front.
Players in addition to Crosby and Ovechkin are full of personality and talent, but have had to take a back seat to the NHL’s two cover boys. It's not the fault of Sid and Ovie, but it's time that the sport invested in all of the talent pool all season long instead of just the All-Star game.
The NHL separates itself from the other three major sports in addition by producing a different type of athlete. Where the NFL, NBA and MLB boast stars with larger-than-life contracts, the NHL's best earn peanuts in comparison.
It's fair market value comparatively, but hockey players endear themselves more to their fans because they typically don't roll with a posse 12-deep, gold-plated toilet seats and shark tanks in their living rooms. While they are hardly forced to dine at the early bird specials at the local Steak and Ale, hockey players are presented more modestly, which endears them to their fans.
The most frustrating part about the lockout is to see all of the progress disappear.
The general public thinks that the players are on strike and want more money. There is still such a disconnect from the NHL and the mainstream media that the players are the only side working to get the correct message out there. Just when it seemed like hockey had taken such a big step to get into more living rooms and on more televisions, the league pulls the plug.
It's idealistic to think that the future holds labor peace and congenial negotiations, but we the fans will keep our collective glass half full. Hopefully, when the next CBA expires in the early fall of 2022, we won't see a commissioner named Gary Bettman riding his hoverboard to the meetings in New York.