1. The 2004-05 lockout. Struggling with rising costs and with its CBA expired, the NHL locked its doors on Sept. 16, 2004, in an effort to secure a salary cap. The players dug in their heels in futile petulance. And 310 days later, backroom negotiations led to their capitulation and a 24 percent salary rollback.
The damage to the sport in lost prestige, alienated fans, an entire season lost and jobs shed was dramatic, but the NHL emerged better positioned as an entertainment entity. Several teams still struggle, but the cap ensured a parity-inducing distribution of talent and influx of younger, cheaper prospects. Rules changes to free up skill players (no red line; a strict reinterpretation of obstruction) achieved their goals. The shootout, derided by purists, added excitement that won fans and created highlight material for TV. The NHLPA, though, has yet to fully recover.
2. The Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry. On the heels of the lockout, when the NHL needed it most, came a rivalry likely to define the game for the next decade. Crosby and Ovechkin have a long way to go to match the ferocity of the Rocket Richard-Gordie Howepas de deux, but their task is the resurrection of the game as a true Big Four sport in America.
Their second-round 2009 playoff matchup was a seven-game thriller that captivated more than the usual fan base. Both were magnificent (each had eight goals; Ovechkin edged out Crosby in assists, 6-5), but in the decisive Game 7, it was A.O. who blinked, failing to convert on a second period breakaway that might have turned the tide in Washington's favor. Crosby's Penguins took this round, but both players left fans hoping that this was only the first of many such showdowns.
3. The battle for the Coyotes. After failing to find a buyer to keep the team in Phoenix, Jerry Moyes chose bankruptcy to recover some of the more than $300 million he'd lost owning the franchise. Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie offered up to $242.5 million with the condition that he be allowed to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario. The NHL challenged in court, based on its right to decide where it had teams and also, in the minds of some observers, to protect the legitimacy of Bettman's Sunbelt expansion at the expense of an under-served Canadian market.
After nearly five months of wrangling that aired loads of dirty laundry, Judge Redfield T. Baum awarded the team to the NHL, which continues to seek an owner as it mends fences with alienated fans in Phoenix and across Canada, as well as with Wayne Gretzky, whose claim to an ownership stake was not recognized by the league. The Great One resigned as Coyotes coach and exited the league he'd put on the map in much of the U.S.
4. OLN/Versus. The NHL eschewed ESPN's broader reach for a netlet best known for hunting shows, infomercials and the Tour de France. The decision seemed counterintuitive, but OLN, now known as Versus, offered a bigger bag of cash. After a year without revenue, it was impossible to pass up as the NHL sought a post-lockout American broadcasting partner.
The cost: dramatically diminished exposure just as the league was introducing a stunning array of new stars. Versus recently reported a 16 percent increase in viewers compared to the same time last season. And while the network doesn't offer a nightly highlights show, all games are in high definition and there is wall-to-wall playoff coverage. Rumors suggest ESPN will reenter when the Versus deal ends in 2011.
5. The Sidney Crosby draft lottery. The lockout over, the player whom Gretzky anointed The Next One was eligible for the draft. But how to determine the picking order without a previous season? Rather than reward the 2003-04 bottom-feeders a second time, each team in the league got three balls in a hopper. One ball was removed for a playoff appearance or first overall pick in any of the previous three seasons. Thus, four teams were left with the best chance to draft Crosby: Buffalo, Columbus, the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh. That the drawing would be held behind closed doors at the Board of Governors meeting generated concern about a Patrick Ewing-style fix to bring Crosby to New York, but when commissioner Gary Bettman ultimately revealed the Penguins logo, it set off a chain of events that included the revival of the franchise, the construction of a new arena and a Stanley Cup in 2009.
6. Todd Bertuzzi and Steve Moore. The sucker punch that ended a career and damaged the NHL's reputation. Allegedly motivated by the desire to avenge an earlier hit on Canucks teammate Markus Naslund, Bertuzzi blindsided Avalanche rookie Moore with a roundhouse right. As the knees of the smaller player wobbled, Bertuzzi landed on his back and drove his head into the ice. Moore suffered three broken neck vertebrae and a concussion.
Reacting to the brutality and outcry, the NHL suspended Bertuzzi for a record 17 months, including the duration of the 2004-05 lockout, when he was prevented from joining other NHLers playing overseas. Criminal charges filed in British Columbia resulted in a guilty plea and sentence of one year's probation plus 80 hours of community service. A civil suit filed in Denver was dismissed, but a $38 million suit filed in Ontario remains before the courts.
7. The inaugural Winter Classic. Like something out of a Currier and Ives print, there was the NHL's marquee player circling the puck at center ice, waiting to decide the season's most anticipated game. The shootout play was to unfold in the middle of the giant snow globe that was Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium. The weather may have impaired the quality of play, but it was dynamite for the optics.
With a record 71,127 on hand and the largest TV audience for a hockey game in 10 years, the NHL's bold gamble to play outdoors on Jan. 1, 2008, paid off. It was a closely contested match that managed, for the most part, to survive the elements and come down to one shot. Slicing through the driving snow, Crosby went straight at Sabres goalie Ryan Miller before sliding a forehand through the five-hole to clinch the 2-1 win. And the Winter Classic morphed from a tricked-up one-off into an annual event.
8. The rise of the KHL. The NHL's long supremacy as hockey's ultimate proving ground is now being tested by 21 teams across the Russian Federation. Expansion in Europe is imminent. Funded primarily through corporate sponsors, the Kontinental Hockey League offers a high-paying alternative to the NHL.
So far, it's primarily an attractive retirement home for fading stars like Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Yashin, and safe haven for cultural shut-ins like Alexei Morozhov. But the KHL's sights are set higher. It's won back Nikita Filatov, one of Russia's best young players, and is preparing to beat any offer for top talent like Ilya Kovalchuk. It may still be a pipe dream, but it seems inevitable that an NHL star in his prime will jump, if only because the KHL has no salary cap and is determined to repatriate Russian stars. When that happens, the NHL may find it has a problem it can't simply shoo away.
9. Ovechkin's behind-the-back goal. Custom-made for the YouTube generation, it defined the singular magnificence of the game's most charismatic star. The Capitals were leading the Coyotes 5-1 late on January 16, 2006, when Ovechkin picked up the puck at center ice. With one man to beat, he crossed the blueline and cut across the middle. Paul Mara played it perfectly, standing Ovechkin up in the slot and pushing him outside. But the rookie kept his eyes on the puck and, as he landed on his back to the right of the net, switched from his forehand, cradled the puck in his curve and whipped a no-look backhander behind goaltender Brian Boucher. "The new NHL affords an opportunity for a player to truly exhibit his skills," Bettman noted. Of course, there aren't many out there with that kind of skill.
10.Canada's 2002 Olympic gold medal game: "You ever try carrying an anvil on your back for 10 days?" That line drew chuckles when Al MacInnis offered it after Canada's 5-2 win over the host Americans in Salt Lake City, but Canada had waited 50 years for another Olympic gold medal in hockey.
At times it seemed the weight of expectations would overwhelm the assembled talent. But an us-against-them diatribe from GM Gretzy reset their focus and a centered squad found itself in the finale everyone wanted: against Miracle maestro Herb Brooks and a gritty American side looking to stretch its gold medal streak on home ice to three.
From the puck drop, the match was a thrilling blend of NHL-style physicality and Olympian speed, the tide threatening to turn on every shift. In the end, it was Joe Sakic who carried the day, scoring on a classic wrister late in the second, assisting on Jarome Iginla's second goal and sealing the 5-2 deal with another tally in the dying moments of the third. With the crowd singing O' Canada as the clock wound down, the weight mercifully slid off.