AFTER NEW Chicago Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon signed Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year, $27 million free-agent contract last summer, he proclaimed "the Blackhawks are back"--maybe a news flash to Chicago fans who have been trooping out to see the team in recent years but a sentiment that everyone in hockey understood.
Indeed, the scene was being repeated in what had been the NHL's unlikeliest outposts until the lost 2004-05 season changed the economics, and soul, of the league forever. The Edmonton Oilers, small-market sellers since trading Wayne Gretzky 17 years ago, became buyers, dealing for marquee defenseman Chris Pronger and signing him to a long-term deal worth about $30 million. The most coveted free agent, Norris Trophy defenseman Scott Niedermayer, chose the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, a nonplayoff team that has had trouble drawing fans. The formerly bankrupt Pittsburgh Penguins compounded the lottery dumb luck that landed prodigy Sidney Crosby by signing rushing defenseman Sergei Gonchar and scoring winger Ziggy Palffy, among others, to become perhaps the most improved team in the NHL. And those weren't the only elite free agents to sign with clubs they wouldn't have given their unlisted phone numbers to two years ago: Left wing Paul Kariya went to the Nashville Predators (box, page 62), defenseman Adam Foote to the Columbus Blue Jackets and center Bobby Holik to the Atlanta Thrashers.
The 310-day lockout resulted in owners, who claimed $224 million in losses in 2003-04, grabbing a larger chunk of what had been a $2.1 billion business. Players, who had been pulling in about 75% of league revenues under the old collective bargaining agreement, are now limited to 54%. And the new system puts teams that previously did not compete for high-priced free agents on a more equal footing with the league's big spenders. The salary cap of $39 million (the floor is $21.5 million) also includes a provision that limits any player's salary to 20% of a team's payroll.
The impact on a macroeconomic level can't yet be told. On a microeconomic level, however, the prelude to the 2005-06 season was dynamic and wondrous. In a three-week sprint from late July through early August, titans of the league such as the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche, under cap pressure because of obligations to contracts signed before the lockout, began shriveling like summer's last rose, while low-budget franchises such as Chicago and Pittsburgh wrote big checks. "The league could have [spent] $10 million on a marketing campaign and not achieved what those two weeks--plus did in generating interest," Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe says.
Ten days before the Oct. 5 start of the season, one in four players--256 of the 1,019 who appeared in at least one game in 2003-04--had changed uniforms. "I still have to check sometimes to see who's where," says Minnesota Wild general manager Doug Risebrough. The NHL anticipates a dip in gross revenue due to the recoil from the lockout, but program sales should soar.
the salary cap has created at least an illusion of competitiveness, the red herring of the lockout debate. In fact, from 2001 through 2004 more NHL teams, 14, reached conference finals than the 10 that got to that round at least once in the NFL, America's paragon of parity. But the now relatively slim disparity in payrolls has spawned a Lake Wobegon effect: Like the children in Garrison Keillor's fictional town, all 30 teams are above average. Or so they think. Even Pittsburgh decided to write a new chapter (following Chapter 11) in its checkered history by adding accomplished veterans Mark Recchi, John LeClair and Jocelyn Thibault--$5.8 million in additions that might amount to playoff success but also could result in a hefty blow to the bottom line if the Penguins don't reach the second round.
"We're optimists by nature, not realists," Risebrough says of NHL general managers. "I'm not sure of the math, but I'm guessing 15 teams will have winning records, 15 will have losing records, and one will win the Cup. There were a lot of players suddenly available, and the time to sign them was short. The length and money of these deals will affect us today and tomorrow. I'm not sure how many of us really thought about tomorrow. Given what we went through"--a potentially ruinous lockout--"maybe we had to concentrate on today."
Obviously the NHL needed a rebirth. In the history of rebranding, perhaps there has never been a more daunting task than creating a new and offense-minded NHL with the same (more or less) core of 700 players and the same (more or less) coaches, not one of whom has ever benched a player for botching a scoring chance but all of whom have buried a guy for blowing a defensive coverage. Back at the drawing board, the NHL revamped its rules in an attempt to revive flow (gatefold illustration, preceding this story). None of the changes is as dramatic as the reinterpretation of the rule book, assuming it is enforced: The NHL has vowed to prohibit obstruction by penalizing any player who even slightly impedes an opponent who is not carrying the puck.
If players are Pavlovian enough to adapt to the new style, Thrashers general manager Don Waddell suggests that casual fans actually will be able to differentiate between first- and third-line players. The star system will return, underscoring the unique gifts of players such as Mario Lemieux, who scored 69 goals and had 161 points in the halcyon days of 1995-96, the last season before the league began its descent into a rodeo (only with worse national TV ratings). An erstwhile 92-goal scorer, Gretzky, the new Phoenix Coyotes coach, thinks someone will score 60 goals for the first time since Lemieux. Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla, whose 41 goals shared the NHL lead in 2003-04, predicts 135 points will top the league, a 44% increase over the 94 by the Tampa Bay Lightning's Martin St. Louis in the last season. This NHL is not trying to leap forward as much as recalibrate commissioner Gary Bettman's Way Back Machine by one decade.
the battered league can only improve from the on-ice facelift, just as a crumbling hockey city such as Chicago and an energized one such as Columbus can benefit from having big spenders like Detroit and the New York Rangers reined in. There is hardly a team that can't turn logic inside out in this cost-certainty era and view itself as just a few bounces from the 2006 Cup. Crosby making the Penguins into NHL darlings? Gretzky challenging for a playoff spot in Phoenix? Come next spring, powerhouse Colorado might have slipped out of the playoffs, and Atlanta, which has never made the postseason, might have slipped in; Nashville could be on its way to the Western Conference finals. Who knows?
The fall air is ripe not only with the rank smell of hockey gear but also with the sweet smell of possibility.