Rewind the calendar back to a little over seven years ago. The NHL and NHLPA signed a new collective bargaining agreement in July 2005. That agreement ended a lockout that had already vaporized a full season of hockey. The 2005 Stanley Cup would go unclaimed as the entire 2004-05 NHL season was lost.
That lockout year was extremely heated. The issues debated were larger than the lockout that delayed the 2012-13 season. There was even less love lost between Gary Bettman and then NHLPA director Bob Goodenow than Bettman and Donald Fehr.
It may seems strange since the 2004-05 lockout saw an entire season lost, while a 48-game year is still taking place in 2013, but the NHL is clearly far weaker this go around. This should be a huge concern for those that love about the sport.
During the past seven seasons, the NHL has arguably enjoyed more success than any of the four major sports leagues, even if it remains the runt of the litter. A testimony to that success can be found in the NHL salary cap, which was set at just over $70 million for this season, after starting at just $39 million in 2005-06. TV deals with the major networks in the US and Canada have reached unprecedented levels, and there have been year-on-year record revenues each season since the last lockout with a 33% increase on business in 2011-12 compared with 2005-06.
However, the reality remains that the 2012 NHL lockout broke the relationship between the NHL and its fans. The 2004-05 lockout was sold as a necessity for the game which was hanging on by a thread as a business. There can be no such comfort found here. Indeed, the above figures dismiss that idea completely. Instead, the lockout was held up by haggling over compliance buyouts, contract length and other menial details that few fans can sympathize with.
The NHL that emerged from the lost season was widely described as the ‘new NHL’. The game was completely reenergized, being played at a far faster pace than we’d previously seen. In 2005-06, 7588 goals were scored in the NHL regular season, which was an increase of 1270 goals compared with the 6318 scored in 2005-06. The game was transformed, affording broader appeal to a wider audience, while the salary cap allowed teams to avoid huge losses, making the league far more competitive. Only the Toronto Maple Leafs has failed to reach the NHL playoffs since the 05-06 season. Meanwhile, smaller market teams like the Phoenix Coyotes, Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes have enjoyed considerable success.
The job of marketing the NHL for Bettman and company following the 2004-05 lockout was made easier by the incredible wave of young talent that took control of the game. That season introduced two players who could be remembered as two of the most phenomenal to ever play the game in Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin would also join the league from the KHL only one season later. In addition to those superstars, the likes of Eric Staal, Jason Spezza and Pavel Datsyuk all asserted themselves as being amongst the league’s best.
There is no such crop emerging for NHL fans as regular season action finally got underway last month. In fact, a number of NHL draft picks making their respective teams straight out of training camp has become customary.
The indications early on, based on attendance and TV ratings, are that the fans have returned to the NHL. In many ways, the league benefited by making their return as football wrapped its contests and the NBA hit its lull.
Still, there’s no guarantee that the fans will stay with the game. They have the right to feel betrayed. Only time will tell whether a long-term CBA and a fast-paced, quality shortened 2013 NHL season can win back their support. It could take several months or even a year to determine the true impact of the 2012 NHL lockout on the game not to mention the league’s reputation and standings in the eyes of its fans. Either way, there are some serious challenges for Bettman and the league up ahead.