When the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup after the 1994-95 season, it seemed like everyone wanted to put an asterisk next to their name in the record book.
A championship won after an abbreviated, 48-game season wasn’t universally embraced as legitimate at the time. To this day, many hockey fans view that first Devils championship with a degree of disdain. Even though New Jersey would go on to win two more Stanley Cups, their first one never really passed the smell test. Worse, critics often blame Jacques Lemaire’s club for plunging the NHL into the trap era, where defensive scheming trumped offensive creativity.
Yes, the last lockout-shortened season soured many fans on the game. The league failed to capitalize on the New York Rangers’ dramatic and memorable Stanley Cup championship from the previous season. And instead of cementing its status as one of the big four sports in North America, the NHL toiled in obscurity with attendance and TV numbers that seemed to stagnate in the years that followed.
So when this season started in the shadow of yet another lockout, the pessimists were out in full force. Once again, the league seemed destined to erode the importance of a Stanley Cup won by a team located in a major American city — this time, the Los Angeles Kings.
As autumn arrived without NHL hockey, fans focused their rage on commissioner Gary Bettman. They threatened to boycott games if and when the NHL resumed play — talk that was taken seriously by league executives, who feared social media would galvanize disgruntled fans in a way that grassroots campaigns never could in the past.
In retrospect, that raw emotion and venom from fans on Twitter and Facebook may have been a good sign, one that suggested they still cared deeply about the game. After the 1994-95 lockout, there seemed to be an apathy and malaise that set in around the NHL, and the boring style of play was the perfect match. Indifference towards the game was the biggest enemy the league would have to fight out of this latest labour dispute. The true challenge following the lockout of 2012-13 wasn’t creating new fans — it was making sure the old ones didn’t leave.
That’s where there’s a distinct difference between this shortened season and the one that occurred in 1994-95: This regular season — though not perfect — was a major improvement. The Blackhawks enjoyed a record-setting start. There was legitimate hope that the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry could be renewed, as both superstars finished as Hart Trophy finalists. Every Original Six team qualified for the playoffs including the Maple Leafs, who did so for the first time in almost a decade.
This time around, we weren’t left with a dud of a Stanley Cup final like the 1995 edition, when the Devils swept the Red Wings in a series that was devoid of any significant moments.
Instead, we’ve been rewarded with an exciting, hard-fought matchup between Boston and Chicago. And because this final features two great hockey cities with powerhouse teams, there’s been little talk of asterisks.
When Gary Bettman held his annual state-of-the-union address before the Stanley Cup final in Chicago, he spoke with an air of confidence. The commissioner wasn’t the least bit embarrassed about plunging his sport into yet another prolonged labour dispute.
Instead, Bettman confidently announced the NHL played to more than 97 per cent capacity during the regular season. Despite what some predicted during the winter of discontent, attendance actually showed a slight increase from last season. And the television ratings also showed improvement this season, drawing the best numbers since 1993-94 — the year before the word “lockout” became a common part of the NHL vernacular.
Perhaps fans warmed to the idea of a 48-game season this time around because it beat the alternative they witnessed in 2004-05, when an entire campaign was wiped off the books.
Or maybe fans have just come to accept NHL lockouts in the same way they do shootouts, bigger goalie equipment and hockey in Florida. They don’t necessarily embrace them, but they are just part of the game.
And for Bettman and the owners, when it comes to lockouts, perhaps the third time is the charm.
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