Despite a lengthy hiatus, the NHL finally opened its doors for business again on Saturday, as hockey fans across the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Some clever bugger once said that you don’t miss a good thing until it’s gone. Bullshit, if you ask me. Well, that would have been my reaction up until September 16, 2012, when the world as I - and the millions of others who enjoy watching a vulcanised rubber biscuit being chased around a sheet of ice – know it came crashing to a halt. This was the day the 2012-13 NHL season entered into a lockout. Worst case scenario meant there would be no hockey played from the season’s schedule start date of October 11, right through until the Stanley Cup Finals the following June. This was the day that hockey died, effectively.
The story of how the NHL ended up in such a mess is an all too familiar one: this latest fiasco, after all, marked the third lockout (the other two coming in 1994 - 95 and 2004 - 05) during the current NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman’s reign. Bettman’s birth certificate, however, might as well read: the devil incarnate. Not too dissimilar in looks and personality to The Wicked Witch of The West, Bettman is universally loathed by hockey fans. Thanks to three lockouts and an urge to Americanise hockey, the 60-year-old has managed to turn the sport into a laughing stock amongst North America’s professional sports leagues.
As with so many of today’s sport-related problems, this lockout boiled down to one thing: money. Unable to reach agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement (that’s a labour deal to you and I), the league locked out its players as of 12:01am, September 16, the deadline date for a new deal having passed. In a nutshell, the league’s owner and the NHLPA (National Hockey League Players’ Assocation) couldn’t bury the hatchet regarding player salaries and their share of the NHL’s $3.3 billion piggy bank, which is also know as hockey-related revenue (HRR).
Similar to being promised sex, only to be told by the other half that they’re actually too tired, hockey fans were cruelly teased as attempts at fresh negotiations broke down time after time. By December 20, games through January 14 - including the league’s flagship outdoor game, the Winter Classic - had been cancelled, meaning 50.8% of the season had been thrown onto the scrap heap. As more and more players fled to Europe’s top leagues to ply their trade, the mere thought of a potential NHL season from a fan’s perspective seemed naïve.
Hours without hockey turned into days; days into weeks; weeks into months. Time usually spent watching hockey was taken up by other completely alien, seemingly pointless activities: actually doing the office job I’m paid to do; watching Downton Abbey on DVD with the other half; ironing and, believe it or not, socialising with family and friends. Ok, that last bit was made up, but you see what I’m getting at. Imagine, as a football fan, for example, that come 3pm every Saturday afternoon, you had fuck all to do. A tough pill to have to swallow, eh? Welcome to our world.
Christmas came and went, the reality of no Winter Classic game on Boxing Day serving a painful reminder of what should have been. Santa Claus, however, left it until January 6 to deliver hockey fans their present, the fat shit. Following a marathon 16-hour negotiation session, a tentative CBA deal was finally reached at around about 5:00am that Sunday morning.
The feeling of sheer ecstasy felt as the news broke on Twitter will stay with me for the rest of my life. It was an overwhelming combination of jubilation, relief and sense of justice; the kind of emotions that only sport, no, hockey is capable of making me feel. 119 days, heaven knows how many meetings and cups of coffee of later, players ratified the new deal on January 12, officially bringing to an end the lockout.
The January start meant a shortened 48-game regular season. More than just a numbers game, however, hockey is a game of rituals; a series of routines and superstitions followed to a greater extent than in any other sport I have witnessed. Pittsburgh Penguins star, Sidney Crosby, uses the same cup to protect his nads now as he did as a junior, as well as taking a different route to the dressing room to his teamates, so to avoid the opposition‘s changing area. Players, coaches and fans, for whatever reason, are creatures of habit. As the puck dropped for my game of choice - which saw 2011 Stanley Cup Champions Boston Bruins take on this year’s hotly tipped New York Rangers- on Saturday’s season-opening night, I realised I was no different. The same beer was swigged from the same cup; the same crisps scoffed; the same dodgy internet stream was used; the same jogging bottoms and hoody combination to keep me comfy into the early hours. These were my very own Sidney Crosby-isms, albeit from the comfort of an armchair.
As two of the NHL’s Original Six teams, the Bruins and Rangers’ collective performance at Boston’s TD Garden on Saturday night encapsulated all the great things I’ve missed about hockey. Over 60 minutes, fans were treated to Gladiatorial toughness, passion, hard work, four goals, outstanding goaltending and two brutal scraps, just for good measure. Life, all of a sudden, was good again. Hockey fans are a notoriously tough bunch to please and, in that sense, we won’t forgive or forget what has happened over the past few months. However, we have back what is rightfully ours, and quite frankly that’s all that matters.
Hockey is back, indeed. Let’s just hope it’s for good this time.