A little over a year ago, Jordan Eberle packed his things and drove from his summer home in Calgary to Edmonton like any other season, but there was one major difference.
“Obviously, I didn’t know where I was playing,” the Oilers forward said.
The uncertainty of the lockout “overwhelmed everything,” in the words of NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr. For players, not having a target date to shoot for a year ago made for a unique challenge.
“You didn’t know what was going to happen,” Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “You just didn’t want to burn yourself out by working out.”
Those worries and so many others are gone. The 2013-14 NHL season features full training camps and exhibition schedules and, most importantly, an 82-game season that feels much more familiar than the 48-game sprint of last season.
“This is a little bit more back to normal,” New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. “After a long summer, you’re excited to be back on the ice and get ready and start playing again. The same feeling you had last summer, it was just you never got the chance to start on time. That was disappointing, but we moved past that now and I think everybody’s just happy to be back and preparing for a new season. I think both players and hopefully fans feel the same way.”
Harmony returned to hockey not too long after the acrimonious lockout ended in January. Fehr was not surprised that the focus shifted quickly from boardroom monotony to intense focus on the ice.
“Obviously we didn’t like the timing of the start of the season, but we had, by every measure, a spectacular season once we started to play,” commissioner Gary Bettman said.
A memorable Stanley Cup final between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Bruins closed out the spectacular season that almost wasn’t. It was the most-watched final on record, and other ratings and attendance figures made the lockout seem like a distant memory.
“It’s almost like it was forgotten about a week after you start playing,” NHL executive vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell said. “I don’t think the word lockout really was uttered the last three or four months once we started playing again.”
Naturally the lockout and the ensuing collective bargaining agreement set the tone for not just last season but the foreseeable future. An even split of hockey-related revenue between the owners and players set the salary cap at $64.3 million, making for plenty of roster questions in the closing days of the pre-season.
Realignment into four divisions and a new playoff format emphasizing division play and rivalries adds a layer of unpredictability to the proceedings. The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets’ move to the Eastern Conference could displace one or more playoff teams there, while the Winnipeg Jets got a geographic gift with their shift to the Western Conference.
“I think the first year we were in Winnipeg it was kind of a whirlwind figuring out where you’re going to live and getting your bearings around town,” Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. “And last year with the lockout-shortened year, we had such a short training camp. To get a great chance to get situated with how we want to play, it’ll just be nice to have a normal year.”
After a season NBC sports analyst and former NHL coach Pierre McGuire likened to a “drag race,” players might have to pace themselves more this season. That’s due in part to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which will interrupt the season but also showcase the league’s top talent for the fifth time.
But most aren’t worried about returning to an 82-game marathon.
“It’s back to your old ways. It’s what you’re used to,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “You’re just used to that routine as a hockey player.”
It won’t be back to the same, old routine for the Ottawa Senators and Daniel Alfredsson after their surprising divorce. Alfredsson left his team of 17 seasons to sign a one-year deal with the Red Wings, leaving behind him his identity as the face of the franchise and some hard feelings.
“Losing a guy like Alfie in the dressing room, you don’t replace his intangibles, but we knew the day would come,” new Senators captain Jason Spezza said. “We didn’t think he’d be moving on, we thought he’d be retiring, so we were prepared for that day, just didn’t know that it would come in this fashion.”
The Senators and Red Wings are now Atlantic Division rivals, so they’ll meet four times this year, starting Oct. 23 in Detroit. There will be plenty of intradivision play in the Metropolitan, Central and Pacific, but the aspect that seems to excite players most is being able to see every other NHL team at least twice.
“I like it. For me, personally, we get to go play every team, whereas the last couple years that I’ve played in the league you only go to certain places once every two years,” Eberle said. “I think it’s great for the fans.”
Just having a full 82-game season without the strife of the lockout is great for the sport. The sour taste from 3 1/2 months without hockey faded fast.
“When labour disputes end, when lockouts end, things tend to bounce back pretty quickly,” Fehr said. “The product is so good, and so people want to bounce back.”
The result is what appears to be a healthy league with no work stoppages on the horizon.
“I think it’s in a really good place,” Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “The lockout was pretty ugly and not something that anyone really wanted to go through, but I think coming out of it and seeing the way everything went basically in the second half of that year, it was great. I think the game’s in a good place, and we continue to try to get better.”
Improvement is constant, whether it’s in the form of realignment or rule changes, like the grandfathering in of visor usage or the implementation of shallower nets. Players now get extra penalties for taking their helmets off to fight, something Bettman said was done in the name of player safety.
The NHL hopes to capitalize even more on the love of outdoor games this season with six total, from the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium between the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs Jan. 1 to “Stadium Series” ones at Yankee Stadium in New York, Soldier Field in Chicago, BC Place in Vancouver and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
From the season openers Oct. 1 through the end of the Stanley Cup final, the calendar is pretty packed.
“We have a lot of fun things happening this year with the (outdoor stadium) series and Winter Classic and Olympics,” Lundqvist said.
Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron, well-known for playing through a broken rib and punctured lung in last season’s Cup final, reflected on last year’s playoffs as a chance for fans to re-engage with the sport because so many of the series were captivating. From Jan. 19 through the end of June, and then a busy summer that included the Phoenix Coyotes being sold and Ilya Kovalchuk bolting for the KHL, it was quite the sprint.
The expectation is that the sport will grow exponentially in years to come. Fehr, who saw Major League Baseball bounce back from its strike in 1994 to go on to “unparalleled and unprecedented highs,” hopes that’s in the cards for the NHL.
“It would certainly be nice,” he said. “I now understand why people watch hockey games. It’s fabulous, and hopefully we’ll be able to, over time, make that known in a fashion that perhaps hockey hasn’t so far to all those fans out there that still aren’t ardent followers.”
Having a full season is a good place to start.