VANCOUVER - The season of the lockout is now the season of the asterisk for the National Hockey League.
The labour war is over, but the damage could last years.
A tentative agreement reached early Sunday between the NHL and its players' union does not make everything better. Commissioner Gary Bettman's third lockout lasted 113 days, scuttled 510 games and probably cost owners and players about $1.5 billion US that will not be recouped. The stain on the NHL brand is far harder to measure.
Both sides lost.
“I think a lot of damage has been done,” Vancouver Canuck winger Daniel Sedin said Sunday. “We all know how much people in Canada love hockey. I think those fans will come back because they love the game, although I don't want to sound like I'm taking that for granted. But some of the smaller markets in the U.S., it's going to be tougher. Fans there have probably gone on to other sports and I think it may take a while to get them back.”
The Canucks never wanted this lockout, yet owner Francesco Aquilini was part of the unanimous vote by governors that authorized Bettman to start it on Sept. 15.
What do the Canucks get out of the new collective bargaining agreement? A greater revenue-sharing obligation to the league, less contract flexibility to take advantage of their big bank account, and an asterisk beside whatever the Canucks achieve this season.
“Well, a 48-game schedule or 50 or 52, there always will be (an asterisk),” Canuck president and general manager Mike Gillis told reporters. “But you know what? I don't care. We're here to win a Stanley Cup and we're going to do everything we can to do it. If it's 82 games or 52 games, every other team is in the same position. And the team that wins the Stanley Cup will get their names engraved on it. If you win it, you deserved to win it.”
The Canucks nearly won the Stanley Cup two seasons ago, losing Game 7 to the Boston Bruins. Last April – or was it three years ago? – they were bounced from the playoffs in five games by the champion Los Angeles Kings.
Both times, the Canucks were the best team in the NHL during the regular season. Vancouver should be good again this year, but there are potential problems.
Gillis has $9.33 million (pro-rated for this season) tied up in goaltending, and for now is paying deposed starter Roberto Luongo a salary-cap hit of $5.33 million to operate the gate at the players' bench while Cory Schneider starts.
Although there is believed to be a framework for a Luongo trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were reported last fall to be surrendering centre Tyler Bozak, among other pieces, Gillis still gives no impression he is in hurry to deal the goalie – nine months since Schneider became the starter.
Vancouver badly needs Bozak or another proven centre because key Canuck Ryan Kesler is months behind in his recovery from off-season surgeries and reiterated Sunday there is no timeline for his return.
There is no natural temporary replacement for Kesler in the organization, although former first-round draft pick Jordan Schroeder was among a handful of players recalled Sunday from the minor-league Chicago Wolves.
The Canucks have a solid defence, good goaltending and a great first line. But there are a lot of questions about the second and third forward units, as well as the overall game-readiness of a team that had only a few members play in Europe during the lockout.
There were reports late Sunday that training camps won't open until at least Saturday, and a 48- regular season will start on Jan. 19.
A shortened season narrows the margin for error because teams that struggle at the start have little time to catch up in the standings. When the NHL staged a 48-game season in 1995, a Canuck team that went to the Stanley Cup final the previous year struggled to crawl into the playoffs.
“We're going to be a good team this year again,” Sedin insisted. “We've got pretty much the same players coming back. A few additions, but the same coaching staff, and we all know our system. It might take us a few games to be game-sharp, but I'm not worried about that.”
Daniel and his brother, Henrik, are 32 and have only one more season after this one under contract. Top defenceman Alex Edler is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer. The bite of a lower payroll, reflecting the players' share of revenue dropping to 50 per cent from 57, will be felt next season.
There is urgency for the Canucks to win now.
“I don't think the urgency is any different than it has always been,” Gillis said. “There isn't one deal or transaction or opportunity that we don't look at very seriously to try to win a Stanley Cup. That urgency is there all the time.
“If there's anything that we can do that we think will advance us to winning a Stanley Cup. . . we're going to do it.”
Key elements of the new CBA include a seven-year cap on contract lengths, close to what the NHL Players' Association proposed a month ago, and a salary-cap ceiling of $64.3 million for next season. Yes, after 113 days, the limit teams can spend is back where it was when the lockout began. Players get an improved pension
The players' biggest concession is the 50/50 split on revenue, which should put an additional $2 billion into owners' pockets over the eight-year (plus option) term of the new CBA. The NHLPA offered 50/50 on Nov. 21, so the last six weeks exemplified how unnecessary the lockout was to a league that had soared along on record revenue.
“Everybody feels badly that things went this way,” Canuck assistant general manager Laurence Gilman said. “You're talking about a game that is part of the fabric and culture of this country. It transcends the business. The most important stakeholders are our fans. That has never been lost on us.”
It was lost on others.
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