Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lessons Learned From a Shortened Season

By Mike Chen

Chances are, you've all but forgotten the Great NHL Lockout of 2012 — you know, the sideshow of business logistics that became a chest-puffing contest between Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr. Yes, it was that pro sports beast that ate up the first three months of the season, the Winter Classic, the All-Star Game, and a whole lot of goodwill from fans.

And now the Stanley Cup Finals are finishing up while reaching record TV ratings. Attendance for the regular season wasn't impacted that much, and in most markets, ticket sales equaled or exceeded each market's usual standard. There are probably still a few disgruntled fans out there, but the fact that the saved season didn't march off into the Armageddon of the lost 2004-05 campaign has probably given hockey die-hards some Stanley-colored glasses.

To be fair, it helped that the regular season was filled with storylines and intrigue, from Sidney Crosby's torrid start to Alex Ovechkin's MVP finish. The Stanley Cup playoffs produced loads of memorable games, and even the lopsided Eastern Conference Final stood out simply by the utter meltdown of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Forty-eight games and four rounds of playoffs later, it seems like all is forgiven in the world of the NHL. And with an extended outdoor stadium series next year, along with participation in the Sochi Olympics, and it seems like little-to-no momentum has been lost by the NHL. They can give a big thank you to the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins, two marquee Original Six markets that put on overtime thriller after overtime thriller (just imagine the groans if the Cup Final was San Jose and Ottawa).

Not all was rosy, though. The enthusiasm of the first two weeks or so of the season gave way to sluggish, even sloppy play. Much of this was the result of the lack of a training camp and preseason, along with the ramrod approach free agents and team newcomers had to getting adjusted. One has to wonder how the Chicago Blackhawks' record-breaking undefeated streak would have gone if their opponents had normal prep time.

It wasn't just the players and coaches that were sloppy, though. NHL officials got more than their share of dirty looks, particularly in the Stanley Cup Playoffs when it seemed like decisions became downright arbitrary, from the small (letting go off blatant obstruction calls) to the large (Raffi Torres getting a series suspension for a hit on Jarret Stoll — one that even Stoll said was clean). A lot of this has led to formal discussion among general managers of a coach's challenge, and it wouldn't be surprising if this finally landed in the NHL in the upcoming seasons.

What will definitely become part of the NHL norm, however, are visors. After ugly injuries, particularly one to Marc Staal that created permanent vision damage, players finally agreed to grandfather in visors. Visors are no longer considered equipment for the weak or fragile; in fact, it seems that many players and fans simply consider it stupid not to wear a visor with all of the possible eye/concussion injuries it can help prevent.

And finally, it's hard to discuss the 2013 season without looking at the fact that it was only 48 games. There was a certain excitement to the truncated season, one where there was no mid-season doldrums to slow things down. Every point counted, which made for a sprint rather than a marathon. Who knows how things would have changed for some teams had they had a full 82- game season. As fans, though, it's worth pondering what the ideal season length could be. For its beneficial quirks, 48 games is too short; at the same time, 82 games often feels like it's too long. A 70-game season might be ideal, though the only way that will happen is if owners give up revenue from six home games — something that will never happen unless those games are replaced by a play-in round prior to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The 2013 season started with uncertainty and anger and ended with record-breaking TV ratings and a thrilling two months of playoffs. Yet in some ways, it feels like failures and mistakes can be written off due to the strange nature of the truncated schedule. The NHL has amassed a ton of goodwill, much more than one could have dreamed following a lockout — now it's up to both individual teams and the league as a whole to make sure they don't squander it for the 2013-14 season.

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