Hockey fans had reasons to return in 2005 but what about 2012? - 10-09-12

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

Hockey fans, particularly those in the United States, are a hearty, eclectic breed.

We'll go to great lengths to watch our sport. We've all gone to that one bar we don't like simply because it had OLN.

We're also a little bit elitist. Hockey's our little thing and if you don't have a perfectly justified disdain for referee Paul Devorski, you're a lesser human being in our eyes.

We're also loyal. But to a point.

When the NHL emerged from its previous lockout in 2005, fans returned in droves. Healthy, stable markets such as Toronto and Montreal didn't miss a beat as far as fan attendance. Newer markets such as Tampa Bay or Carolina experienced surges in ticket sales.

Whether it was someone from the NHL heaping ingenious sound bytes of praise or journalists offering an objective view, hockey fans were lauded for their willingness to forgive all parties responsible for the 2004-05 lockout. Fans just wanted their hockey back.

That brings us to the current work stoppage which has delayed the start of the 2012-13 campaign. The assumption is that once again, hockey fans will dutifully return as if nothing has happened. They'll buy tickets, wear jerseys, purchase television packages and be completely consumed by the sport.

Will they?

The 2004-05 lockout was as dark of a time as anyone connected to this sport will ever experience. An entire season was lost. Think about that. For one season, a professional sports league ceased operations over finances.

It was awful. But it wasn't without benefit. In fact, that lockout offered huge, landscape-altering changes which improved the sport. The NHL realized it needed to make massive changes to improve the sport. The league knew it had to give fans a reason to come back. And it offered plenty of bonuses to once again earn our interest and more importantly money.

Being an NHL fan in the fall of 2005 was very easy. Here's why:

More offense

The league introduced new rules or adjusted old rules which promoted offense. Obstruction was tightly monitored. Power plays and offense went up. As a player recently told us, the 2005-06 season was "awesome" with all the free space offensive players could work with in the "new NHL."

Additionally, rules such as the trapezoid behind the net which limited how much a goaltender could touch the puck and the automatic delay of game penalty for playing a puck over the boards allowed for more power plays. While no one was on the verge of erasing any records set by Oilers of the 1980s, the game experienced an offensive surge not seen since the early to mid 1990s.

The NHL saw seven players reach the 100-point plateau. In the previous five seasons before 2005-06, the NHL all of five 100-point scorers. Five.

The offensive stars were allowed to use their skills and hockey was fun to watch again.

The shootout

Used for decades in international competitions, the shootout provided an easy, relatively quick way to determine a winner and it eliminated ties which seemed to leave most parties unsatisfied.

It also created drama. Which three skaters would a coach use? Do you shoot or deke? Should a goaltender go for a poke check?

Even if you didn't like the shootout or cared about the game, chances were you watched it. Even if you weren't a strong hockey fan, you stopped whatever you were doing and tuned in to see who would win the game.

Those who have nothing but venom for the shootout will tell you its a silly gimmick. And they're right. The shootout is a gimmick. And gimmicks are supposed to be fun. And last we checked, games are supposed to be fun. That's what this gimmick has provided the NHL.

Cheaper tickets

Sensing a long, difficult work stoppage, the Penguins announced a drop in ticket prices towards the end of their disaster of a 2003-04 season. Overall, the team slashed their average ticket price by an average of 15.7 percent. After the lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season, the Penguins honored the prices they had established for the 2005-06 campaign. That helped the team fill the Mellon Arena to 93.3 percent capacity throughout a clunker of a season.

Other teams slashed ticket prices as well. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman cited "cost certainty" and championed the cause of affordable ticket prices for staging that lockout. Entering the 2005-06 season, NHL fans in many markets had an easier time with regards to finances when it came to purchasing tickets.

Crosby and Ovechkin

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entered the NHL as latter-day replacements for Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. Not so much in terms of style, but in terms of star power. They were the NHL's "Bird and Magic" tandem that the league would pit against one another in order to sell the sport.

The fact that they joined rival teams helped add some gasoline to the fire the NHL was trying to start. The dynamic of the happy-go-lucky Russian versus the straight-laced Canadian made their budding rivalry even bigger.

Both players were once in a generation type of talents. Even if you weren't a hockey fan, curiosity would get the best of you and force you to tune in to watch a superstar.

In the summer of 1998, the home run race between superstars Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa is often crediting with fixing the damage done during Major League Baseball's player strike in 1994 and 1995. That's what the debuts of Crosby and Ovechkin did for the NHL following the 2004-05 lockout.

The Winter Classic

While the NHL's first outdoor regular season game, the Heritage Classic, was held in 2003 at Edmonton, the Winter Classic held at Orchard Park, N.Y. in 2008 gave the NHL something it desperately craved: Attention.

A game on New Year's Day in a 70,000-seat NFL stadium in the snow was so... so... different. The contest itself was snoozer as the Penguins and Sabres slogged their way around a sloppy sheet of ice. But this was so much more than a game. It was an event. The aesthetic of two hockey teams skating through a steady snow captured the hearts and mind of hardcore, casual and non-hockey fans alike.

Since then, the game has become a significant money maker for the NHL. Additionally, the mainstream attention it receives has been amplified by HBO's cameras through the "24/7" series.

Like the shootout, crusty, stick-in-the-mud critics deride the game as a gimmick. But like the shootout, this gimmick has done nothing but benefit the league.

The salary cap

Before the 2004-05 lockout, teams like the Rangers, Red Wings, Maple Leafs and Stars just tried to outspend each other into oblivion. It was very much like Major League Baseball where the rich teams existed on another plane than the poor teams. Much like the Pirates, the Penguins became a team unable to pursue elite talent.

After the lockout, a salary cap was in place. It allowed teams like the Penguins to sign all-star players such as Sergei Gonchar. It enabled the long-struggling Oilers to acquire an all-everything defenseman such as Chris Pronger. It forced the Flyers to part ways with expensive, bloated salaries belonging to players such as Jeremy Roenick.

It brought parity to the NHL. It leveled the playing field from a financial standpoint. As a result, the NHL has had eight different Stanley Cup champions in eight seasons since the 2004-05 lockout. No other major sports league in North America can claim that type of parity in the same time span.

So what about now? What will this lockout bring? Will the NHL or its fans benefit at all due to this work stoppage as far as the on-ice product is concerned?

We have our doubts. There appears to be little in the way of change on the horizon. Assuming this lockout provides few on-ice improvements to the sport, why should NHL fans continue to be loyal to the NHL as well as the NHLPA? What will have changed to justify someone spending a good portion of their disposable income on NHL-related purchases, especially in economic times far harsher than what we knew in 2005?

The NHL has seen the game degraded to shot-blocking contests by teams such as the Rangers.

Additionally, ticket prices have found a way to climb from an average of $43.13 in 2005 to $57.10 in 2012.

And there isn't a single Crosby or Ovechkin on the horizon, let alone two of them. Oilers forward Nail Yakupov and Halifax Mooseheads forward Nathan MacKinnon, the projected top pick in 2013, should be fine talents in the NHL, but neither capture the heart and mind the way Crosby and Ovechkin have.

Regardless if this lockout ends today or in a year from now, the NHL and NHLPA need to find creative ways in order to appease its fans this time. It's easier to be loyal when you're given multiple reasons to be. Those reasons were plentiful in 2005.

What about in 2012?

(Photos: Fans-Jim McIsaac/Getty Images; Scoreboard and tickets-Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Shootout-Len Redkoles/Getty Images; Crosby/Ovechkin and Winter Classic-Dave Sandford/Getty Images; Gonchar-Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

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