April 18, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (29) celebrates winning against the Philadelphia Flyers with teammate Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Pascal Dupuis (9) after game four of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the at Wells Fargo Center. The Penguins defeated the Flyers, 10-3. The Flyers lead the series three games to one. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Lockout unfortunate, but NHL once again ready to blossom

I am a hockey fan. But I am a hockey fan because I was an NHL fan first.

Yes, events like the exciting World Junior Championship (how about that team USA?) and high-quality leagues like the AHL, ECHL, NCAA and USHL prove that the sport is much more than the players, coaches and evaluators that reach its pinnacle.

However, if most of us are being honest, the NHL is what initially attracted us to the sport. Perhaps I’m projecting my own feelings a bit too far, but I would wager that if you’re a Pittsburgh-area hockey follower, you have the Penguins to thank for your devotion.

So no, I don’t have a problem with people proclaiming that “hockey is back,” even if we all know the sport never went anywhere except a little further into the back of the mind of the average American sports fan. No one promotes all levels of local hockey more than me – as this season’s Gospel of Hockey episodes prove – but I’m thrilled that we’ll be able to watch some of the world’s best athletes displaying their talents once again.

That doesn’t mean the past 3 1/2 months didn’t hurt. We didn’t need to miss a half-season’s worth of games, unlike the 2004-05 lockout that necessarily rebuilt the NHL both on and off the ice. This work stoppage was supposed to “tweak” a league that was looking healthier than ever in many ways, and I’m sure even commissioner Gary Bettman and players’ association chief Donald Fehr are at least a little surprised the impasse lasted this long.

There has been damage done, especially to diehard fans, but despite those wounds you don’t need a silver linings playbook to see at least one positive aspect of this situation. The best part for me: a 48- or 50-game schedule will ratchet up the intensity of every forecheck and backcheck, power play and penalty kill.

I’ve long maintained that, outside of football, pro sports seasons are too long to expect the athletes to have their best every time they put on their jerseys. The concept of pacing oneself will be foreign once the season gets going.

Secondly, it never hurts to have leverage. The NHL and its players will be desperate to get back in the good graces of the fans, so get ready for great deals on merchandise, tickets and other league-related goods. As a displaced Pittsburgher living in Michigan, I’m holding out hope for free GameCenter service via NHL.com.

In October 2005, I was fortunate enough to attend the Penguins’ first home game after the cancelled season with a couple of good friends. The Stanley Cup was in the house, Mario Lemieux scored a pair of goals and Sidney Crosby lit the lamp for the first time in his pro career. The Bruins won 7-6 in overtime, but there was no mistaking the aura of elation at Mellon Arena that night.

Things won’t seem as rosy this time around. Yes, it’s better not to miss an entire season, but the construction of the NHL’s latest collective bargaining agreement has the unmistakable feel of cold, businesslike drudgery, not the welcomed renewal of eight years ago.

Ultimately it’ll be no matter, as we’ll be talking line charts, trades and playoff berths in no time at all. And that’s the way it should be. Fans will be fans so let the lawyers and actuaries worry about the details.

Hockey may not have gone anywhere, but its best selling point did. A great sport is back at full strength.

Instead of popping a cork, let’s just drop the puck.

Tags: Donald Fehr Gary Bettman NHL Lockout Pittsburgh Penguins

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