Hockey is back, but what does that mean?
With the National Hockey League now officially set to return, the game has been engulfed in a blizzard of opinions and assumptions as people scramble to make sense of the process which led us to this bizarre point in hockey history. From talking heads in television studios all the way down to the average fan’s Facebook and Twitter updates, mixed reaction seems to be the order of the day. Whether predicting the outcome of the coming season, or placing the blame for the fact that it will not be a complete season, common ground has become a scarce commodity in the world of hockey.
The truth is, only the passing of time, and its subsequent blurring of facts, will tell us what all of this posturing has meant to the National Hockey League’s position within the North American sports landscape…but then again, truth rarely gets in the way of good reporting. So here’s how I see the situation breaking down, in terms of both how we have gotten here and what fans can expect to see moving forward:
This entire situation was (mostly) the owners’ fault.
It is easy to say that someone being paid millions of dollars should simply be happy for what they’ve got, but there are a few facts which seem to have been completely glossed over by many of the people I’ve spoken with in recent weeks. These facts include, but are not limited to:
-The players were not on strike. They were willing to play, but were locked out by their owners.
-There are approximately 750 players in the National Hockey League, and conservative estimates put the total number of ice hockey players in the world at around two million. This means that NHL players represent the top 0.0375 % of people who play the game. A person in the top one thirtieth of one percent of any industry is not only deserving of becoming a millionaire, they are actually very likely to become a millionaire. The only difference is that in other industries, a person can earn a living by being nowhere near that good; sport is simply less forgiving of failure.
-As a matter fact, if an insurance salesman or marketing rep were able to generate the kind of income for their employer that someone like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin generates for their respective teams, they would likely be paid significantly more than what these players earn…
-And they would earn it for a much longer period of time. The average NHL player makes $650,000 per year for an average of 3.5 years, which works out to a total career earnings of $2.275 million. For some perspective, a person making $50,000 a year will earn approximately $2.25 million over the course of a career. Yes, these guys are paid well for the time they spend in the league, but that money needs to last forever because…
-The average hockey player leaves home at the age of fifteen to play junior, does not get a free education (only one third of NHL players even attend college, let alone graduate), and works more than 70 hours a week for ten years before they even have a chance of being paid. Oh, and if they twist an ankle at the wrong moment, the whole thing ends right there on the spot. Within the fraction of a percentage who do make it, most have less than four years to earn enough money to last a lifetime. Those years are spent beating their bodies into submission on a nightly basis, spending weeks at a time away from their families, and living under the scrutinising eye of media every waking second. Is the life of a pro athlete glamorous? Yes, it is…but it is by no means easy.
A lot fans say they would like to see the players walk a mile in their shoes, to see them struggle with the daily monotony of life in a cubicle, or behind the wheel of a delivery truck. Truthfully, it would probably be an eye-opening experience for most players…but if the roles were reversed, there isn’t a fan on the planet who would survive the first day of training camp, let alone the lifetime of sacrifice it takes just to have a chance of playing one single game in the National Hockey League. Unless that fan is the CEO of a multi-national corporation, and among the most elite to have ever worked in their field, it is an apples-and-oranges comparison.
Sure, the players could have easily accepted the first offer and simply gone back to playing, and many of the superstars would have been just fine…but the fourth line grinders would suffer for the rest of their lives. The fact that these guys wanted a decent pension and some job security does not bother me one bit, especially when the owners were the ones who agreed to sign bank-breaking deals in the first place. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex process, I can’t help but ask; if two parties agree to something and then one party fails to live up to their end of the deal, who is at fault?
A shortened season favors the young and the old.
Over the run of an 82 game schedule, traditional wisdom says that a healthy mix of youth and experience is the way to win in the NHL. With a schedule which is cut by nearly a third however, all traditional wisdom is thrown to the wind. With fewer games in which to tire out or accumulate injury, veteran teams could increase their playoff potential greatly. Also serving some of the older teams well is the fact that with experience comes the ability to quickly adjust to the intensity of an NHL season. Clubs such as the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings, who both have an average age of more than twenty-nine years, could benefit greatly from a shortened schedule…
As long as they stay healthy. Although a shortened season decreases the likelihood of a veteran player being hurt, it also means that every injury that does occur will result in a higher percentage of games lost. This factor actually benefits the exact opposite end of the spectrum, with younger teams like Edmonton potentially benefitting from the tenacity and durability of youth.
During an 82 game schedule, young teams tend to experience a natural series of highs and lows, but with just a few months’ worth of jam-packed schedule, a healthy young team that gets hot at just the right moment could very well go on to become the 2013 Stanley Cup champions.
Goaltenders will rule.
In hockey, you are only as good as your goaltending, and that will be especially true this season. In a normal year, number one goaltenders take on up to eighty percent of the team’s workload, but this season, it will be the tenders who are able to effectively shoulder ninety percent or more who will excel. When the puck does not drop until mid-January, every game counts for that much more, so look for teams to rely heavily upon their starting goaltenders…and for those goalies to be an accurate barometer of their teams’ success.
Traditional workhorses such as Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff should excel, as should net-minders in their prime such as Montreal’s Carey Price…but concerns about goaltending could very well be the Achilles heel of many a Cup favorite this season as well. Despite Corey Schneider’s sensational finish to last season, the pressure will be on the Canucks’ newly anointed number one as he gears up for what should have been his first attempt at a marathon. Instead, he will find himself in a 400-metre sprint to the finish line. The same holds true for teams such as Tampa Bay and Washington, who have both handed over the reins to relatively inexperienced net-minders.
Of course, there are also the exceptions which prove the rule. In both Edmonton and New Jersey, expectations range comfortably from Stanley Cup contender to missing the playoffs altogether. The Devils are coming off of a run which saw them finish within just one win of their fourth Stanley Cup championship, and the upstart Oilers are loaded with enough young talent to make your head spin…but despite their differences, both teams’ fates will come down to essentially the same question; can their back-up goaltenders provide enough relief so that the veteran number one is rested and focused come playoff time? Nikolai Khabibulin and Martin Brodeur both possess the talent to make deep playoff runs, but how well their backups perform (Devan Dubnyk and Johan Hedberg, respectively) could easily decide whether or not they even get the chance.
Whats-His-Name is going to dominate…and then disappear.
The lockout has delayed the coming-out parties of more than a few highly-anticipated young players. Draw the name of an Edmonton Oiler from a hat and chances are, you’ve got a guy who was expected to dominate this season. The Bruins have been salivating at the idea of having Dougie Hamilton develop under the tutelage of Zdeno Chara, and Jonathan Huberdeau looks to already be a lock among the Florida Panthers’ top six forwards.
But mark my word, it’s either that guy you’ve never heard of or the guy you’ve forgotten about who will dominate headlines over the course of this shortened season. You know, the fourth round draft pick or established journeyman who is currently biding his time in the minor leagues, but not really making much noise? He will walk into training camp for a team that was scratching at the door of the playoffs last year and immediately start lighting the lamp. He might even carry his team to the post-season. Then he’ll sign a moderately high-priced deal and fade off into the depths again by the middle of next season; somewhere between a career fourth-liner and an A-list American Leaguer.
It could be a European import (Fabian Brunnstrom, anyone?), a one-time all-star making his last stand (please, please, please… let it be Scott Gomez), or a kid who was drafted high, but will lack the staying power to make a full career of it (remember Wayne Babych’s 54 goal season? Didn’t think so…).
This lockout-shortened NHL season will be both remembered and described in a lot of different ways; from infuriating to miraculous…but regardless of how the season plays out, it is certain to be unlike any year in recent memory. It may not be here in its purest form, but given the fact that we nearly missed out on hockey altogether this year, it will have to do.