The more they are deprived of the NHL, the more hockey fans will remember what the sport’s top league has that every other circuit lacks. Or, at least, they will realize all the more what the NHL has in a more gourmet form than any other level of hockey.
While the push to end the lockout presses on, three-plus weeks of the NHL’s originally scheduled 2012-13 season have already passed. No regular-season action will be seen any earlier than the start of December with the current calendar month already deleted from the dwindling docket.
In turn, there will be little, if anything to cultivate out of the following aspects of the NHL its fans all but take for granted in times of normalcy. Although, in light of the 2004-05 season that never was and now the current lockout, these items may never again be taken for granted.
Since the 2007-08 season, fans in the U.S. with comprehensive television packages have found their saving grace from the perpetual hockey highlight famine on Sportscenter and ESPNEWS. The NHL Network’s daily, in-season news show has packed the previous night’s action into an hour’s worth of extended replays and insightful studio analysis.
With the indefinite extension of the offseason, it is almost as if the NHL Network does not exist, unless one wants to settle for exponentially stale programming from any season that isn’t 2012-13.
Another seasonal NHL Network program, this talk show packs in two hours of current events in the hockey world every weekday, but not when the only current event is a labor dispute.
As little as ESPN does to spotlight the NHL, it almost always turns to Barry Melrose, who is also a regular on the NHL Network and, according to some, the most interesting TV pundit.
The overflowing octane and umbrage that permeated the state of Pennsylvania for the better part of last April doubtlessly has Flyers and Penguins fans waiting for more. That rivalry may have been the NHL’s most radiant when the league closed up shop for the summer, but there are numerous others that partisan and disinterested fans alike cannot wait to see resume.
For those fortunate enough to take in even one solitary game per season, the highlight montage and spotlight show that precedes the opening faceoff is an integral part of the arena’s atmosphere. For those who constitute a part of the home crowd, it can be viewed as a key part of the team’s identity.
More often than not, bigger facilities make for bigger, better pregame shows and, naturally, the NHL has the biggest venues.
Sure, they could go and plug their schedules with special appearances at various minor professional and/or amateur games. But at some point, it will not be the same seeing and hearing Rene Rancourt anywhere other than TD Garden, Lauren Hart anywhere other than the Wells Fargo Center or Lyndon Slewidge anywhere other than Scotiabank Place.
Certain teams have reached a point where their goal song is all but directly synonymous with them. The Chicago Blackhawks with “Chelsea Dagger” and the Boston Bruins with “Kernkraft 400” come readily to mind.
Depending on how quickly they jell with their elite additives, the Minnesota Wild could soon be getting regular attention beyond their fanbase with more frequent renditions of “Crowd Chant” from the Xcel Energy Center.
Whether it is at someone’s house or a sports bar, the next best thing to carrying out one’s passion for the sport in the stands is to assemble with friends around a large television.
Those who live in or close enough to Canada or who have the American edition of the NHL Network should have spent each of their last four Saturdays watching the syndicated broadcast of NHL action from 6:30 p.m. to approximately 1 a.m.
From the pregame to Don Cherry’s weekly bombast to the Hot Stove to the wrap-up and the six periods of hockey in between, it is a savory and inimitable buffet of coverage.
Not sure exactly why, but it often feels like the behind-the-bench interviews conducted by Pierre McGuire are a humorous diversion from the game waiting to happen. Either that, or they just lend a harmless tidbit of up-to-the-minute insight straight from a firsthand participant in the game.
If you will pardon the inadvertent pun, those who heard Mike Emrick calling the summer’s Olympic water polo matches whet their appetite for another slate of NHL action on NBC and the NBC Sports Network. At best, their craving will now be answered with a two-month delay.
The fans and followers of most NHL teams have their choice between the franchise’s television or radio broadcast team. In some cases, a single set of announcers will double-shift, but nonetheless fulfill their duty to inform and entertain in the eyes (and ears) of most viewers and listeners.
Until further notice, those voices have all been silenced; everyone from Jack Edwards to Pat Foley to Rick Jeanneret to Mike Lange to Bob Miller to Dave Strader.
After Patrick Kane and Tim Thomas, key members of the previous two Stanley Cup champions, had their turn crossing paths with “Peggy” of USA Prime Credit, two more American NHL stars bolstered a title run for the L.A. Kings.
There is no telling if a fresh new ad campaign would have featured Dustin Brown or Jonathan Quick. It still could, but no one is going to know either way until there are game broadcasts to sprinkle those commercials into.
Technically, this never stops, even when the league is locked out. But trade talk of any kind always has the most traction when the NHL is in season and prospective commodities are putting fresh items on their transcript while lists of prospective buyers and sellers are taking shape.
For the devout puckhead, a year-plus of political campaign analysis leading up to an election has nothing on four-plus months of trade speculation between opening night and the NHL trade deadline.
Be honest. If you own at least one item of outerwear bearing your favorite team’s crest and colors, how many times can you wear that during a lockout before it starts to feel foolish?
Vincent Lecavalier reaching 1,000 career games and Alex Tanguay tallying 500 career assists are just two milestones that likely would have been reached a few weeks ago had the season started as planned.
Many more, whether they are presently on the radar or not, were sure to follow. But some, if not all, may need to be pushed off as far as next season and a few may never be reached as a byproduct of the lockout.
One could conceivably try to assemble a fantasy hockey league that is based on the performances of players in any other league. But prior knowledge and up-to-date information on every player at lower levels does not tend to be as immediately available as they are in the NHL, which has left its established players to disperse among the AHL, ECHL and overseas circuits.
Every now and then, offices of all sorts within a reasonable radius of an NHL team will raffle off tickets to an upcoming game, giving a lucky employee the privilege of taking in a little action. Either that or one might try their luck in a contest for the same prize conducted by a local media outlet or sponsor of the team.
Those who have entered such contests and have yet to win, in particular, are the NHL fans’ answer to teams and players who are seeking to end protracted playoff and championship droughts. Their doggedness is being muzzled by an indefinite lack of a platform on which to compete.
There are other fans who, rather than leave their hopes of taking in a game this year to sheer chance, will set aside a little dough and wait until one has saved enough to treat oneself. (This author fondly remembers doing just that three short seasons ago, when he still had a partisan investment in the league. Nearly six full months of aggregation and anticipation culminated in a memorable late-March day trip.)
As the 2012-13 NHL schedule gradually erodes, so do the number of chances for somebody to reward his/her patience and persistence.
Just as it is in baseball with foul balls and home run balls, any hockey fan would embrace an opportunity to nab a fresh-off-the-ice piece of game-used equipment. Whether it is an errant puck or a stick generously relinquished by one of the night’s three stars, there are few comparable ways for a rooter to connect to the athletes they handsomely pay to watch.
Granted, this happens in other leagues, but only in the NHL can you acquire an authentic piece of NHL equipment, complete with the shield and home team logo or the player’s surname inscribed in permanent marker.
Minnesota fans are being forced to indefinitely wait on the arrival of free-agent imports Zach Parise and Ryan Suter plus touted soon-to-be rookie Mikael Granlund. Ditto the Edmonton fanbase with the latest top draft choice, Nail Yakupov, and there are similar storylines on hold for virtually every other team.
In the hockey world, the sight of new personnel in new attire is supposed to be as integral to October as the transformation of the leaves outside. Seeing the various debuts for this season in December or January will be better late than never, but the ongoing wait is as agonizing as the wait for all other aspects of following the NHL.
It is never anything short of encouraging to see a young fan and prospective player have his or her love of the game spawned or emboldened upon watching the latest highlight-reel play.
Los Angeles Kings fans are still waiting for the last major development in their team’s championship, namely the raising of the banner. Afterwards, everyone is to start scrutinizing L.A.’s trek in pursuit of a repeat.
Other teams, such as the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers, are looking to build on the strides they made last spring by either ending a playoff drought or going progressively deeper into the tournament. Those are the sorts of teams whose fanbases, in particular, are having their anticipatory appetites callously unanswered as the lockout persists.
It could be a team that fell victim to ill fortune, one that utterly squandered its chance for a lengthy playoff run or a playoff run at all, a player coming off an underachieving campaign or a player coming off an injury-riddled year.
Whatever the case may be, storylines revolving around NHL parties who are hungry for redemption are just as compelling as those concerning players and team who are looking to stay on top.
With many of its younger locked-out players, the NHL is indefinitely lending abrupt excitement to the AHL. It would otherwise be the other way around with the perpetual potential for an Adam Henrique or a Braden Holtby to be summoned from the minors at any time and promptly earn a permanent position in The Show.
Although responsible hockey fans will come or tune in, first and foremost, for pure hockey, they may also catch a spontaneous break in the action filled in by a quick punch-up between two players with a penchant for extracurricular activity.
Only in the NHL will such players be household names to anybody who is not watching them in person.
Whether they appear strictly online or in part or in full on a hockey-related news program, postgame press conferences are another promising breeding ground for amusing sound bytes. Some NHL coaches and other personnel have a particularly legendary, if unintended, knack for those moments.
It happens more often, or at least garners more attention, in the playoffs, but seeing a public figure assume more of a Joe Schmo role while watching the same other public figures in the same capacity as you are? Where other than an NHL game is a hockey fan going to get that kind of treat?
For fans with a taste for intensely low-scoring arm-wrestling bouts, a goaltending card featuring any combination of Jonathan Quick, Henrik Lundqvist, Pekka Rinne and any hot-handed backstop cannot be beat.
Sharing a hometown, high school or college with an NHL player is always fun to brag about. For instance, when Mark Fayne became an instant regular on the New Jersey Devils a year after graduating from Providence College, no holdovers within the student body could get over the fact that they saw him up close regularly and recently.
But bragging about that kind of fact only feels right when the player in question is in action with his full-time employer.
Handfuls of special sidebars every season revolve around a former hero to a given fanbase putting in his first appearance in his former domain since being traded or signed elsewhere. Or, in Teemu Selanne's case last autumn, his first appearance in his former city of employment since that city restored its presence in the NHL after a 15-year hiatus.
Whether someone in your life roots for an arch-rival or just someone other than your own team, it is always fun to pounce on a moment of misfortune for that adversary. In purely good fun, mind you.
Many netminders will modify the decorations on their mask at the start of a new season, even if they have not transferred from their current team. How many of them have done so this year will not be unveiled until there is a new season.
Besides lending ample encouragement to fans of the individual or team in question, every kind of streak presents an opportunity for an opposing party to make a statement. Vancouver Canucks fans had the pleasure of seeing their team do just that when they halted the Detroit Red Wings' record-setting string of 23 consecutive home victories.
While the aforementioned Melrose appears to be mostly, if not entirely, positively received for his insight, the likes of Cherry and Mike Milbury both epitomize the type of media personality consumers love or love to hate.
With the recent cancellation of the Winter Classic, the third season of the NHL version of HBO's 24/7 is on hold for a year. Under more favorable circumstances, fans would have spent the first two months of the season patiently anticipating the premiere, much of December and early January savoring the inside look at the Red Wings and Maple Leafs and several months thereafter reliving the most memorable clips.
This final slide bears 12 precious NHL items for the price of one. Those items are the members of any two starting lineups for an NHL tilt, the collective caliber of which can hardly be matched even when a generous smattering of locked-out players are in the AHL, KHL or elsewhere.
Seeing specimens of young talent in the minors on this continent or streaming a seasoned veteran who is passing the time overseas has a certain degree of satisfaction. But this is the ultimate league in the ultimate team sport, meaning NHL players are the greatest pleasure to watch when they are all together representing their actual NHL team.