They say timing is everything, and the cliche certainly rings true for the return of the NHL later this month.
Hockey fans are frustrated with Commissioner Gary Bettman and the players’ association for threatening to cancel the entire regular season for a second time in eight years. But by the time the puck drops on the real season — the Stanley Cup playoffs — in the spring, this old spat will seem as ancient as Maurice Richard’s skates.
As dire as the situation appeared at times, pressing the big red button was never really an option. This staring contest lasted 113 days for the same reason the fiscal cliff talks in Washington butted up against the midnight hour: no one gives an inch until survival absolutely requires it.
Sadly, Bettman and union chief Donald Fehr are used to humming this overplayed tune. They knew the lockout would be nothing more than an itch on the lower back of hockey fans if teams were skating by the fourth Sunday in January, the bye week between the NFL’s conference championship games and the Super Bowl.
Other than the most ardent fans, no one outside of Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal cares about hockey until the NFL season concludes. The faithful in Boston aren’t worried about the Bruins yet; it’s Tom Brady time. Did Minnesota sports fans cry about the Wild when the Vikings were prepping for a playoff showdown with the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field last week? No one here in the Bay Area missed the opening games of the Sharks’ season when the Giants were parading down Market Street on Halloween.
Like basketball, hockey picks up in February during that lull between football and baseball. An 82-game hockey season is absurdly long, but it’s necessary for box-office revenues. This year’s 48- or 50-game schedule will heighten the importance of the regular season because now every game truly counts. It’s almost as if the playoffs are starting on Day One.
When the NHL resumed after the 2004-05 lockout, the league benefited from a few rule tweaks that opened the game up. This time around, some are questioning whether three months of inactivity will hamper the product.
Sure, diehards will notice the wrinkles at first, but sloppy hockey is often more exciting for the casual fan. It means less structure and, thus, more giveaways, breakaways and end-to-end action. You can also be sure the league is instructing referees to keep an eye out for the clutching and grabbing that is seeping back into the game.
As for San Jose, teal-clad fans packed HP Pavilion in the wake of the league’s previous lockouts and they’ll do it again in 2013. It will take more than the cancelation of 30-some meaningless games to turn fans away from the only big ticket in the South Bay. Heck, 12,000 people showed up at the Shark Tank for an ECHL game between the San Francisco Bulls and the Stockton Thunder last month.
Some might carry grudges, but will they hold on to them when the Super Bowl is seven days away and Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski are tearing up the ice?
Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at www.gacklereport.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.