It’s tough to forgive sometimes, particularly when you’ve been hurt and lied to and taken for granted by the same people on more than one occasion. So it would have been perfectly natural for hockey fans, having suffered the slings and arrows associated with the outrageous fortunes the NHL and NHLPA fought over during the 2012-13 lockout, to be the bitterest of Betties and hold a grudge long after the league returned to action.
However, the way the NHL has come back – capped off by the astonishingly entertaining first round of the post-season – has resulted in a wave of forgiveness from those same fans. Just as you couldn’t blame them if they chose to stay away in droves, you also have to understand why people who love the game have rushed back with such reckless abandon. And as much as it might kill you to do so, you have to give credit to those involved in the high quality of entertainment we’re seeing.
Some of that is thanks to the league’s necessarily compacted schedule. With games being played on virtually every night from the day the league resumed playing to the last day of the truncated regular season, the NHL always had its product in the fore of people’s hearts and minds. And certainly, the fact coaches didn’t get a full training camp to fully install their dreadfully boring systems and strategies has given fans a sloppier, yet more fun to watch, product on most nights.
But it’s about more than that. It’s about the passion, skill, sacrifice and professionalism we’ve seen from players each and every game. If they’re still carrying grudges against the owners for the lockout nonsense they were made to endure, they’re definitely not showing it. The business of the game hasn’t infringed on their commitment to it.
Because of that desire and dedication, the first round of this year’s NHL playoffs has been as, if not more fun to watch than any before it. It has made series that were thought to be cakewalks – Pens vs. Isles, anyone? – into hugely entertaining and unpredictable spectacles. It has led to emotionally charged verbal exchanges and accusations, not just between players (see Kevin Bieksa vs. Joe Thornton/Logan Couture) but coaches as well (see Paul MacLean vs. Michel Therrien). It has forged new blood feuds (Ottawa vs. Montreal) and reinforced old ones (Rangers vs. Capitals).
In short, the NHL has made amends with its patrons not with ticket giveaways, lame promotions or celebrity endorsements; rather, they’ve simply stepped out of fans’ way and let the game’s pheromones re-establish the natural attraction sports offers to Joe and Joanne Public.
To that end, I’m going to humbly re-suggest the league continue along those lines and keep commissioner Gary Bettman out of the Stanley Cup presentation. Yes, for years now I’ve argued that a legendary former player associated with the Cup-winning franchise should award the Cup, but this year it is especially important to remove the league’s top businessman from the equation.
Other than sending him out for the press conference to announce the 2014 Winter Classic, the league has kept Bettman hidden from public view in the wake of the lockout. That didn’t happen by accident and keeping him on the sidelines for the Cup ceremony is a necessary extension of that strategy. Here’s hoping egos and the thin justification that is “tradition” don’t play a role in ending it.
In the end, the business of the NHL recovered and grew mainly because the business of the NHL was pushed completely out of fans’ day-to-day consciousness. The phrase “don’t hate the player, hate the game” may be popular, but it doesn’t apply here.
The players and the game are what have rinsed the hate from fans’ collective palate.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.