In anticipation of the new year, SI.com's writers are predicting the stories they think will define the sports landscape in 2013.
First off, this column comes with a built-in disclaimer of interest because a percentage of you readers have expressed a "repudiation, denial or disavowal" -- which is how Webster¹s defines "disclaimer" -- of interest in the National Hockey League's doings thanks to its mind-numbing lockout. Well, we hear you. Nonetheless, we've been asked to make 10 fearless predictions for 2013. This, of course, assumes that an NHL season of some kind will happen at some point in the calendar year.
So, here we go:
1.Either Donald Fehr or Gary Bettman won't remain at his current job -- Odds are, Fehr will be the one to go. He's 63, after all, and has spoken of his presumed short shelf life as director of the NHL Players Association. The odds have also grown slim on him getting anything resembling a great deal for his clients in the next CBA. The NHL outfoxed him with its preemptive lawsuit in a Manhattan Federal court on December 14 -- gaining the home court advantage the NBA (under the same lockout law firm, Proskauer Rose) had in its lockout in 2011. Fehr has thus far enjoyed strong loyalty from NHL players -- mostly because they hate Bettman more than they love Fehr -- but the fact is that if the 2012-13 season is canceled, Fehr will have lost the battle and, by extension, his constituency.
Owners will always be better able than players to weather a lost season in today's business world. Players can rage at the injustice of this lockout all they want, but they had a reasonable deal on the table a couple of weeks ago in New York and something -- many suspect it was Fehr injecting himself into the talks again after progress was made without him in the room -- set everything back to square one. The press conference he held on that fateful Thursday night, when he said the sides were close to a deal, despite his knowledge that the league would reject the PA's latest proposal, is now widely seen by many in the agent community as a mistake. Of course, a lost season will also tarnish Bettman's already massively besmirched legacy. More than 10 percent of all NHL games - and counting -- have been lost under his watch since he began his reign as commissioner on Feb. 1, 1993. There is some thought that a group of owners would try to oust him should another season be flushed. Trouble is, Bettman needs only eight (technically, seven, since the league still owns the Coyotes) of 30 to back him up should a vote on his job security be tabled.
Translation: he ain't going anywhere, not unless he decides to step down.
2. The NHL will expand by two teams -- The thinking on this is easy to discern: with the loss of revenue that owners will suffer this season, getting two new teams in -- with lucrative expansion-fee money -- will offset most or all of it. This has been one of the more under-reported aspects of the lockout. Quebec and Seattle remain the two frontrunners -- both cities have plans for new arenas well underway -- and their inclusion would likely bring at least a combined $400 million in expansion fees, plus sold-out buildings for two or three years during a honeymoon period. Expansion could easily be phased in for the 2013-14 season, though teams in each new city would probably need to play in an older existing building for a year or two. Expansion would be great news for the NHLPA, too, and it could explain why the group's leadership is not panicking (much) over the prospect of no 2012-13 season. Of course, this factor from prediction No. 1 will apply: current players will lose the most if the season is canceled.
3. Expect a bunch of new bell-and-whistle rules for 2013-14 -- Rules changes designed to open up the game worked well after the lost season of 2004-05. The league is well aware of this, and should the 2012-13 campaign go up in smoke, the NHL will want to come out with several new goodies to create some "buzz" -- and we use this term advisedly. One change we can reasonably expect: the elimination of the trapezoid line. While this will not create anywhere near the stir that the elimination of the red line did after the last lockout, the truth is that many NHL GMs and players believe the game will be better served again by allowing goalies to play the puck from anywhere on the ice. Too often play became trapped in the corners because pucks ended up there -- partially due to goalies not being able do much to keep them out. The game is a little more exciting when goalies have free rein, GMs and league personnel now realize. Another couple of possible changes: new continuous two-minute power plays, regardless of a goal being scored, and elimination of the overtime/shootout point for the losing team.
4. Wayne Gretzky will get the money the NHL owes him and reclaim a job in the league -- The Great One, according to numerous reports, was owed about $8 million on his contract with the Coyotes when the franchise filed for bankruptcy in 2009. When the league took over control of the team and didn't pay him, a rift ensued. At least, that is the belief held by many in the game -- though neither Gretzky nor the league has since spoken on the issue, pending legalities. If the Coyotes become solvent again -- still a big if -- Gretzky should get his dough and those around him believe he will want to get back into the game. Lord knows, the league could use him. Where he ends up is anyone's guess, but lots of teams would love to have him.
5. NHL players won't bemoan the loss of 10-year-plus contracts -- It's a funny thing. Players will often openly mock contracts that are handed out to their brethren. Several confided to Yours Truly that the 13-year deals the Minnesota Wild gave to Ryan Suter and Zach Parise last summer were a "joke." The same sentiment applied to the previous deals signed by players such as Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa (GALLERY: NHL's biggest contracts). Yet during the current CBA talks, players have clung to the belief that contract length should still be largely unregulated. But their protestations ring hollow. The vast majority of NHLers never sign deals that are longer than five years. The NHLPA is fighting for a cause that benefits the few, not the many. That inherently makes it an anti-union.
6. Seth Jones will be the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft and create a new marketing phenomenon --Never in the league's history has an African-American been picked first overall. Jones could change that. The fluid-skating defenseman for the Portland Winterhawks is already coveted by NHL teams that might have a shot at him. If he goes No. 1, expect a Nike-sponsored push of his name across North America as the prime example of hockey's successful crossover infrastructural growth.
7. Claude Lemieux will become a major player on the agent scene -- In 2011, the 4Sports player agency hired the four-time Stanley Cup-winner. In a surprise to nobody who knows the hard-driving son of a Buckingham, Quebec, truck driver, Lemieux has already started attracting numerous clients to his stable. He is vehemently against Gary Bettman's reign and ongoing policies, so expect Lemieux's voice to be heard more at the bargaining tables of the future.
8. Sidney Crosby will lead the NHL in scoring -- There are no friends in hockey when the puck drops, the exception being those who wear the same crest on the front of their sweaters. But after what Crosby has tried to accomplish on behalf of the NHLPA during the lockout, the Penguins superstar will enter into the "Gretzky Zone" of reverence among his peers. That should cut down on his risk of re-injury, especially from concussion, and lead to a scoring title or two or three.
9. NHL coaches will become even less secure --The job that Darryl Sutter did with the Los Angeles Kings, taking them to the Stanley Cup after replacing the fired Terry Murray, was a bright signal flare to all NHL GMs. The message being: coaching changes during a season very often produce desired results.
10. Fans will return -- The data overwhelmingly shows that fans always come back after a work stoppage of any kind. Despite the dire proclamations, the NHL's will show up at arenas and in front of their TVs, just as they did in 2005. They simply love the game too much to go away for good in big numbers. The owners know this -- which is why they aren¹t panicking over every passing day of the lockout.