But what does it all mean?
This Wednesday, as the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes open the 2006-2007 National Hockey League season with a rematch of the Eastern Conference finals, it makes sense to look back and reflect on what it means that hockey is back.
Really, this time.
Of course, nothing will compare to last season, when the phrase, "hockey is back" meant "back from the lockout," "back from the grave," or possibly even, "back from the grave?" Despite the return to action, we wondered at the time, was hockey really on the way back, or was it merely a sport without an audience gasping for one more chance to redeem itself? All things considered, the game made some splendid strides forward last season, especially seeing that at this time last year, (and pardon me as I lay yet another two-hander across the spine of one of sports journalism's favorite dead horses) the National Hockey League was on very thin ice.
As fans prepared for the opening of the season last year, times were dark indeed. The game that we loved to play and watch above all others had inexplicably cancelled an entire season due to a labor dispute, had been dropped from it's television contract on ABC and ESPN, and was only to be shown nationally in America on OLN, a virtually unknown basic cable network best known for bicycle racing, Survivor re-runs and a reality show starring Ted Nugent. Worst of all, the mainstream sports media here in America relished in telling us over and over again that not only did the majority of American sports fans not miss hockey, but they didn't even notice it was gone.
It was discouraging, but to the true fan, there was reason for optimism. As the new salary cap system came into effect, fans were treated to the most exciting free agency period in the history of the game, superstars swapped teams, exciting new rules appeared for debate and the lowly Pittsburgh Penguins were awarded the most heralded first overall draft pick in years in Sidney Crosby. There were also some
typically ham-fisted attempts at public relations, first and foremost, the "Thank You Fans" messages, written large enough on the bluelines to be seen even from the building's cheapest seats, whose prices had been reduced from 2003's "ludicrously expensive" down to merely "ridiculously expensive." When compared to how hockey fans felt at having an entire season cancelled, it was a pitiful, empty gesture.
But we'd take what we could get; we missed our game and it had been returned to us.
So, on October 5th, 2005, as we collectively huddled around our TV sets or filed into arenas to watch all 30 NHL teams return from the longest, coldest off-season in history, there was joy and relief, but along with it came anxiety. There had been a lot of tough talk from the league about how scoring would be up, shootouts would be thrilling and the much maligned "clutch and grab" would be banished forever. Which was fine, but there were also quite a few purists, myself included, who thought- "Well, they score a lot in the NBA, and that sport sucks." So yes, while it was great to see the Boston Bruins angling up for an opening face off against the Montreal Canadiens, a match-up we'd seen hundreds of times in the past; we wondered- would we recognize it?
As it turned out, it took a while.
In the first weeks of the 2005-'06 NHL season, there was a parade to the penalty box like nothing we had ever seen. Players, coaches, officials and fans debated what was a penalty and what wasn't, what was holding and what wasn't, and how to correct a growing epidemic of diving so insidious it seemed like every player in the NHL had the number 66 on his back.
Yeah, I said it.
Oh, c'mon Penguin fans, I'm not saying Mario wasn't one of the greatest ever, I'm just saying in addition to the Calder, Hart, Ross and Smythe Trophies he's won, he's embellished his way into enough calls over the years that his trophy case might not be diminished by, say, a daytime Emmy or two.
Admit it, you'll feel better.
Either way, my point is, it took a while for the "New NHL" to find it's legs, a task made even more difficult by the rash of groin, ankle and back injuries, an unforeseen casualty of the long layoff. With the exception of the Ottawa Senators, who seemingly couldn't lose in the first half, the game limped along through the end of 2005, and in January 2006 was denied what could have been a great opportunity to sell itself at the Olympics when uninspired play and a horribly timed
gambling scandal combined to embarrass hockey in the national spotlight once again.
Then, all of a sudden, it happened.
As we got into February and March, hockey got it's footing. Yeah, there were some new rules we might quibble with, but overall, the game had improved for the better. But where was the line? When and how exactly did the NHL turn things around? I guess to use a player as a metaphor, one might logically say that the NHL, both last season and now, is Patrick Elias.
Sidelined for most of last season with Hepatitis, Elias, like the NHL, was sick with something that no one had ever seen before and there wasn't a hell of a lot of confidence that either of them would be the same. The illness lasted through the entire first half of the season, but when Elias returned for the final 38 games, everything started to turn around. He went on a tear, scoring 16 goals and 29
assists, averaging just under 2 points a game.
As this was happening, the national scene began to realize players like Eric Staal, Dion Phaneuf and Cristobal Huet were for real, playing thrilling hockey and making the game exciting again. As the race for playoff spots began, we started watching as speed became king, and young, fast teams like the Hurricanes and Sabres exploited the new rules to their advantage. We watched a rejuvenated Joe Thornton make Boston fans ache as he turned Jonathan Cheechoo from a second line winger into the Richard trophy winner, and we were thrilled to watch Miikka Kiprusoff rack up shutout after shutout up in Calgary. OK- we didn't actually "watch" Kiprusoff, OLN was pretty light on the Flames games out east, but you know what I mean. We read about him, and wished we could have watched.
It was a thrilling spring.
Meanwhile, the Devils were being led by Elias on a stunning 16 game winning streak down the stretch run, adapting and excelling under a system of new rules that were pretty much designed to stop the New Jersey Devils. And it didn't work. Any American hockey fan should be proud as hell of the Devils, and if you're the kind of person who bitches about how the trap was "boring," I'll tell you this- you'd
love it if your team was as consistently good as them.
And then- the Stanley Cup Playoffs. What can one say about the Stanley Cup playoffs? I've never done heroin, but I've known people who have, and the way they describe it, they say it's just the most exhilarating, intense rush of pure joy they have ever experienced.
Of course, they also don't wash much.
It's a toss up.
But let's be clear- I'm not advocating heroin; at 33 years of age, I'm a little old for new drugs. Still, I will go so far as to say that if I ever heard about an illicit substance that made me feel half as good as I feel watching playoff hockey, well- you couldn't watch the sensationalistic evening news story on this dangerous new street drug, because I would have already broken into your house and stolen your TV to buy more of it. The Stanley Cup playoffs are something special, and last season, they did not disappoint.
Elias, like the NHL, stormed into the playoffs with a head full of steam, fueled by the conviction that even though the future was a question mark at the beginning of the season, hard work, passion and drive can turn things around. In the first round of the playoffs, Elias faced a much-improved New York Ranger team full of his own
countrymen, and was the best Czech player on the ice. The Devils dominated the slumping Rangers and the injured Jaromir Jagr, beating them in four games, and despite being swept by a regional rival, the fantastic hometown hockey fans in New York stood and applauded their team. The Rangers had been an embarrassing mess for far too long, and last year their team turned it around and made the playoffs, giving a great fan base something to cheer for the first time in the new
millennium. Remember, the fans had plenty to boo that team for given their play down the stretch run, but when the season was over, they didn't. They rose as one and thanked the team for the year.
As for Elias and the Devils, well, they were eliminated in 5 by the eventual
Stanley Cup champs. But it didn't matter, the ball was rolling, hockey was back, and the playoffs had moments as memorable as any in history. We had R.J. Umberger getting his bell rung, Michael Peca dislodging the net with his throat against the Ducks, Dwayne Roloson in double overtime catching a bullet of a slap shot from Jonathan Cheechoo in the slot, and Steve Yzerman's last game in the NHL.
In the finals, we had Fernando Pisani's shorthanded OT game winner, Ty Conklin's Steve Smith moment, and Rod Brind'Amour making out with the Stanley Cup. It was a great final series, and a great win for the Hurricanes, particularly for veteran D-man Glen Wesley, who was not only the last active player from the great Boston Bruin
teams who challenged for the cup in '88 and '90, but was also the only man left on the 'Canes who had made the original trip down south from the Hartford Whalers, giving three great American sports cities a reason to cheer.
And as for hockey, where are we now, as opposed to where we were? We're in much better shape. Patrick Elias is as healthy as ever, and ready to start the season strong. And hockey is right there with him.
Welcome back hockey, We missed you.