The Stanley Cup Final begins tomorrow night. It pits the Boston Bruins against the Chicago Blackhawks. The matchup features two of the NHL's "Original Six" franchises as well as two of the past three Stanley Cup champions. Th NHL has arrived at this point following a shortened 48-game season condensed into just over 100 days. The playoffs may have come on the heels of a shortened season, but they have not been short on drama. It is as if the NHL never missed a day.
The Season that Almost Wasn't
The NHL locked out its players on September 15, 2012. The collective bargaining agreement between the two sides had expired, and disputes over sharing revenues and other issues went unresolved (and barely discussed) over the months leading up to the deal's expiration. Thus, the clock began ticking- would a new deal be reached in time for the regular season to begin on schedule in early October? Didn't happen. The impasse dragged on- could it be resolved before Thanksgiving? Nope. Ah, no worries hockey fans, because the NHL would not let its prized New Year's Day outdoor game, the NHL Winter Classic, become a victim of this labor dispute. At least that is what we thought until the NHL announced that it would be canceled.
By this point, fan disgust with both sides was high, apathy from casual fans rampant, and serious concerns expressed by some of the NHL's corporate partners. The posturing and pride both sides possessed took the NHL dangerously to the brink of cancelling the 2012-2013 season. For those of us who thought that the NHL would not allow the cancellation of the 2004-2005 season to be repeated began to wonder if we were wrong. The relevance of the NHL as a marquee sport property in the U.S. could have been irreparably damaged had the lockout resulted in canceling the season. In the end, the two sides saved the season and more importantly, guaranteed 10 years of labor peace to save teams, fans, and sponsors from being dragged through this mess again anytime soon.
New and Old Business
When the puck finally dropped January 19th, the NHL could begin moving forward and it did. First, it was announced that the NHL Winter Classic would return January 1, 2014. It will feature the Detroit Red Wings against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium, essentially a make up for the cancelled 2013 event. Then, the league announced announced five more outdoor games to be played at iconic venues Yankee Stadium (two games), Soldier Field (Chicago), BC Place (Vancouver), and Dodger Stadium (yes, the one in warm southern California). And, the series has a corporate sponsor (Coors Light). Among old business the NHL must contend with is resolving ownership of the Phoenix Coyotes, currently owned by the NHL. Multiple deals have collapsed, and another one is currently in the negotiation stage. How long will the NHL be willing to own a team just so it can be in the Phoenix market? Will an opportunity to secure stable ownership in Quebec City or another market hungry for a major league sports team be too good for the NHL to refuse?
And the Winner Is...
This is the time of year when the NHL is all about handing out hardware. Of course, the Stanley Cup, one of the most iconic trophies in all of sports, will be hoisted within the next two weeks by either the Bruins or Blackhawks. Later this week, the NHL will announce its annual award winners in TV broadcasts on Friday and Saturday. Trophies that recognize the top rookie, defenseman, goalie, and head coach are among the honors to be awarded this week. Later this month, the NHL Draft will be held at the Prudential Center in Newark. Then, free agency signings begin and July, officially moving the NHL past this grueling season and toward what should be a bright future. The NHL lockout that threatened to eliminate this season seems like a distant memory to many fans now.
Another trophy awarded by the NHL is the Hart Memorial Trophy, given to the player who is the most valuable to his team. While the award will go to either Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, or John Tavares, I cannot help but think there is one other person who merits an MVP-like trophy this year: Scot Beckenbaugh
. He is not a goalie, but Beckenbaugh made the save of the year in the NHL. In his position as a Deputy Director for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Beckenbaugh was actively involved in bridging the gap between NHL owners and the players' union in the latter stages of the lockout. He is credited with helping bring the lockout to an end.