April 7, 2012; Winnipeg, MB, CAN; Winnipeg Jets thank their fans after their final game of the season against the Tampa Bay Lightning at the MTS Centre. Tampa Bay wins 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Ten hockey thoughts as we await the 2013 NHL season

With apologies to the always-informative “30 Thoughts” column from the CBC’s Elliotte Friedman, I decided to borrow his list concept for at least one day.

I’ve been waiting four months to write about actual hockey, but since I lack Friedman’s wealth of experience and number of sources inside the game, I’ll have to tone my output down to 10 thoughts:

1.  I may be guilty of believing the hype on this first one, but how many hockey fans are personally offended by the lockout? From my perspective, I can choose to waste energy on being bitter or I can dig back into a league that I love. Given that dichotomy, I’m choosing joy every time. I realize it isn’t that simple, but life’s too short to be angry. Call me gullible, but bring on the opening faceoff.

2.  Indulge me one point on the boardroom behaviors of the past few weeks: remember when we were told that mediation “never works” in pro sports CBA negotiations? As it turns out, federal employee Scot Beckenbaugh’s tireless work ethic and limitless patience served as big a role as any in getting the teams back on the ice this winter. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in buckling up for last-second brinksmanship, but Beckenbaugh coaxed the two sides back into the same room with no less than the future of the NHL at stake. Someone get that man free tickets for life.

April 1, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) and Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (71) talk on the ice against the Philadelphia Flyers during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Philadelphia Flyers won 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

3.  Getting a little bit closer to home, I’ve been impressed by the amount of social media hosannas regarding the return of  the NHL and, more specifically, Penguins hockey. This is the golden age for the sport in the Pittsburgh area, and don’t automatically think that places like Minnesota, Massachusetts and Michigan automatically outpace the Tri-State in hockey enthusiasm. Yes, the sport is more deeply ingrained in the culture of those aforementioned areas, but take it from someone who lives in the Wolverine State: tradition matters less and less as the years pass. The majority of Pittsburghers alive today were exposed to the NHL during their impressionable years; the “Original Six” era might as well have been 200 years ago.

4.  Did you happen to notice that four Pittsburgh-bred players played significant parts in the United States’ triumph at the World Junior Championship? If you listened to the Gospel of Hockey last Friday you heard Larry Synder and me discuss the presence of J.T. Miller (East Palestine, Ohio), Riley Barber (Washington, Pa.), Vince Trocheck (Upper St. Clair) and goalie John Gibson (Whitehall) on USA’s Under-20 roster. There were four area products on the gold-medal winners, more than Michigan (three), Minnesota, Illinois or New York (two each). Talent sometimes comes in waves, but the ‘Burgh is now consistently churning out top-tier hockey players. Credit to local coaches, evaluators and, of course, the success of the Penguins.

5.  News of Team USA’s victory over defending WJC Sweden – as well as their semifinal blowout of Canada – made ESPN’s SportsCenter and other “mainstream” media outlets over the weekend. (To learn more, check out the United States of Hockey blog authored by the uber-qualified Chris Peters.) I’m certain that wouldn’t have happened even two or three years ago. I just found my latest counterargument when someone tries to tell me hockey has “fallen off” in popularity in recent years. By many measures, the game is as popular as its ever been.

6.  Also on the topic of national publicity, will the delayed start to the season attract more attention than if it began on time? With openers tentatively set for Jan. 19, football is largely out of the way, the NBA is going through its midseason doldrums and baseball is still not yet on the horizon. The NHL is going to come out of this situation smelling better than it probably deserves.

7.  Reflecting on the success of the Three Rivers Classic at CONSOL Energy Center, I’ve become convinced that the NHL lockout actually helped the inaugural four-team tournament take off. At first I was concerned that hockey may not have been on the minds of most Pittsburghers, but it likely just made local sports fans even more desirous of a hockey fix. Call it a case of good timing and hope the momentum carries over into future years. (In a related story, the first-year Johnstown Tomahawks are currently fifth in attendance in the junior-level NAHL.)

8.  OK, now onto the Penguins. The new NHL CBA is being trumpeted in some circles as quite beneficial for medium- or small-revenue teams like the Winnipeg Jets. Considering the 50-50 revenue split between players and owners, that much is difficult to dispute. But although the Penguins are among the league’s banner franchises right now – they can’t be too far from printing their own currency at this point – there will come a time when they don’t have two of the best players in the world and interest at enormous heights. Just look at the Pirates’ situation in MLB before you criticize the lower salary cap for possibly holding the Penguins back.

9.  The proposed 48-game season lines up perfectly for a team like the Penguins. Three months sounds like enough for this team, already well-schooled in coach Dan Bylsma’s system and familiar with each other’s tendencies, to rev its engines in preparation for the playoffs. This team is at a stage in which the Stanley Cup is all that matters, and fewer regular-season games between now and springtime is ideal.

10.  Finally, there has been talk of increasing the playoff field to 18 or even 20 teams this year. While I think 20 is a bit much, I’m intrigued by a “play-in round” pitting the eighth and ninth seeds from each conference against each other. Whether it’s a best-of-three or a one-game showdown, I think it would add some juice to the proceedings while reconciling with this year’s less-representative sample size. In a truncated season, why not let two more teams have a chance?

Tags: NHL NHL Lockout Pittsburgh Penguins

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