With lockout behind them, NHL skates on with clear ice ahead

A year after a lockout shortened the campaign to 48 games, the NHL is back and stronger than ever, writes Gregg Patton.

By the time Patrick Sharp and the Chicago Blackhawks raised the Stanley Cup in triumph over the Boston Bruins, the fans had forgiven the league for the hold out that had shortened the season to 48 days. Harry How / AFP
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One year ago, depressed National Hockey League fans had trouble getting out of bed, wondering how the power brokers of their favourite sport could be so inept as to produce a fourth work stoppage in 21 years.

The lockout was so contentious the entire season was threatened until an 11th-hour deal started play in January, three months late, in time for a compressed, 48-game schedule.

By June, when the Chicago Blackhawks shocked the Boston Bruins with two last-minute goals to win Game 6 of the championship finals and hoist the Stanley Cup, the dour mood was long gone.

It was the most-watched Cup series in television history.

The NHL does not do hangovers from labour issues, thanks to its resilient fans.

Twenty of 30 teams sold at least 99 per cent of their tickets in the shortened season.

Even the least popular franchises had more than 80 per cent of their seats filled.

“We’re grateful for our fans,” said Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, this week at Los Angeles.

“All of the research shows we have the most avid, loyal, intense fans of any sport, and we all hurt when we’re not playing.

“Sometimes you have to make tough decisions … now we get to look forward.”

With a 10-year collective bargaining agreement in place, the new season begins on Tuesday under the sunniest of skies

First, salary-cap-induced parity makes every team a potential contender – perennial losers, the Toronto Maple Leafs, reached the play-offs last year, and the Winnipeg Jets just missed.

Sensible re-alignment will lessen some teams’ travel disadvantages, as well. Winnipeg move to the Western Conference, and the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets settle in the east.

The NHL’s biggest stars, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, also re-established themselves in the lockout season.

Pittsburgh Penguins’ Crosby, plagued by concussion problems for parts of the two previous seasons, was the best player in the league until a deflected puck shattered his face in late March.

Simultaneously, Ovechkin shook off two years of malaise, rallied Washington Capitals to a play-off berth and re-captured the Hart Trophy as the league’s top performer.

The league also has scheduled six of its highly popular outdoor games, a marketing winner that plays well outside its usual media spheres. The only hiccup this season is the Olympic Games.

The NHL will shut down from February 9 to 25 while some of its players join national teams at Sochi, Russia.

But even that tends to spike interest in the sport.

All in all, it’s not the fall of 2012.

“No one wanted labour problems to drag on like they did,” said Jeff Carter, the Los Angeles Kings forward, “but it worked out.”

Sold-out arenas don’t lie.