Whether the NHL labor dispute can be settled in time to salvage an abbreviated season is anyone’s guess. But if it happens, what might the sports world expect?
“The hockey is very energetic, it was in 1994-95, but it had a lot of errors in it,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “So from a fan’s standpoint, it was really, really exciting. From a coach’s standpoint, it was like trying to plug holes in the dike. You just had to adjust all the time.”
Some NHL players have been playing in Europe or for minor-league affiliates; some have not been playing at all. Some will be close to NHL speed; some will be far removed. Time will be short and by necessity, patience will be thin. Reputations will not carry nearly as much weight as productivity.
“The first thing you need to do is not assume,” Hitchcock added. “The way you finished the previous season, the roles players played when you finished, all of that stuff goes out the window.
“The players are in various stages of conditioning. Some are 30-40 games into a season, and they’re in their zone. Some will come in and not have played one hockey game. You just can’t assume the same status quo will be there. You’d like it to be for the most part, but the realization is you have to coach players for the way they look the moment they hit the ice and adjust accordingly.”
In a concentrated world, a third- or fourth-line forward by trade could open with a first- or second-line assignment. A primary player may not be ready for the responsibility and the minutes, at least at the outset.
For Hitchcock, the essential barometer falls on the defensive side, where the competitive coagulant is most apparent, where sputtering players will compromise.
“The biggest challenge coming back from something like this is, ‘Where is your defensive game?’ “ Hitchcock said. “Because your defensive game dictates your competitive level and getting the players to buy into the defensive game is very challenging.
“It’s all the little details, the hard things that you have to do. Because players have either played on a lower level, played on a big ice surface or not played at all. There are going to be very few players … that are going to be anywhere close to the level that needs to be played.”
Managing a roster also will be a condensed exercise. The schedule figures to be in-conference exclusive. Training camp will be a few days long with no dress rehearsals. A square peg of a half-season and playoffs will be jammed into a round hole of time.
Risks of muscle pulls and similar injuries will be elevated. Once they are in game condition, older players may rarely skate in practices, saving bullets for when they count.
For general managers, the transaction environment will be accelerated. Camps will be limited to players who might play immediately. The season will have a playoff personality. Winning streaks will be particularly inflating, losing streaks will be suicidal.
“The trading deadline is going to come so quickly,” Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. “You’re going to have to be prepared to make your mind up on where you think you have weaknesses and how you have to shore them up.”
“There could be a flurry of trades, or there could be no trades. Because of the compressed schedule, everyone is beating each other, everyone is going to believe they are in the race right till the end. But you have to compete at the proper time. LA got into the playoffs (last season) on the last weekend and then won the Stanley Cup. So, it’s all when you peak.”
As for how fans will respond, there is conflicting evidence. This is the third shutdown in 18 years for the NHL, the others occurring in 1994-95 and 2004-05. The lockout in 1994-95 wiped out the first half and the All-Star Game, but not the entire season. An agreement came 103 days in on Jan. 11, 1995, and the league launched a stunted 48-game schedule.
Hungry fans in most cities returned in full. Only two teams – Ottawa and Hartford – experienced a drop in the average gate from the 1993-94 season.
In St. Louis, the 1993-94 Blues finished 40-33-11. Brendan Shanahan and Brett Hull both topped the 50-goal mark, and a number of other “name” players dotted the roster. The team averaged 17,313 per night at the Arena on Oakland Ave.
When play resumed in January 1995, the Blues took the wraps off the Kiel Center – now Scottrade Center – and moved downtown. The team opened its new digs on Jan. 26, 1995, with a 3-1 victory over Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings, with Hull scoring twice and newly acquired Al MacInnis adding an assist.
As the mini-season progressed, attendance increased by more than 2,000 per game (19,469). The team finished 28-15-5 and made the playoffs for the 15th consecutive season. The lockout had been frustrating, but hockey had traction in town.
Ten years later, things were dramatically different. In 2003-04, the Blues were 39-30-11-2 and second in the Central Division. Their roster included Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Pavol Demitra, and Chris Pronger. They made the playoffs for the 25th straight season and averaged 18,560 in attendance.
But the 2004-05 lockout lasted until July 2005, and the NHL became the first North American league to cancel a whole season. In St. Louis, the collateral damage was enormous. Blues owners Bill and Nancy Laurie decided to ditch the hockey business altogether and put the franchise up for sale.
Competitive integrity took a backseat to consolidation as management thinned the herd of big salaries. The most striking move was the trade of perennial All-Star defenseman Pronger. When the league resumed in 2005-06, the Blues were a bargain-basement collection of marginal players and journeymen.
Mike Sillinger led the team in goal-scoring with 22 markers, which he managed to collect before being traded to Nashville on January 30, 2006. Weight was leading the team in points when he was dealt to Carolina the next day. The team won 21 of 82 games and missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 seasons.
St. Louis fans were emotionally gutted. They had lost a season to a lockout and lost their franchise to a fire sale. The result was the most dramatic attendance dip in the league. The average gate plunged to 14,213 in 2005-06, a drop of more than 4,000 per game. The following season, crowds officially averaged 12,520, the smallest in 21 years.
Should the current NHL season be saved, the situation seems most comparable to 1994-95. But it’s hard to predict what will happen at the gate. Emotions are running high as the lockout drags on.
“The sad part about the whole deal is they’ve had so many stoppages over the last many years, it’s like you can only cry wolf so many times,” said Joe O’Brien, proprietor at OB Clark’s, a popular sports bar and site for Blues postgame shows.
“?What matters is they’ve been faithful to the sport for years. And here we finally have something going in St. Louis and we have nothing to show for it.”
The Blues have climbed out of the late-2000s abyss. They were among the best in the NHL last season, finishing two points shy of the top overall record.
The hard feelings seem especially unwarranted for Tom Stillman and local investors, who purchased the club in March from a New York-based ownership group. The change created an additional air of optimism and excitement. The new owners had no agenda when they got swept into this labor war.
It remains to be seen if Blues fans can forgive and forget.