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Nostalgia: The Lost Season

Lockout.  That is a word being thrown around quite often at the moment.  Both the NFL and NBA have locked their players out in a bitter labor dispute between the owners and players as owners try to combat skyrocketing expenses.  The players, for obvious reasons, are trying to keep their slice of the pie, so to speak.

Fans of either league both worry that an entire season may be lost over this, and they have good reason: the NHL missed the entire 2005 season.  Those were dark days marred with heated lies and accusations from both sides and deadlines to meet if a season was to be saved.

The lockout changed the league forever.  Everything from the salary cap to the trapezoid to the two line pass have led the game in an entirely different direction than it had been headed.  With that, let's go back and re-live that awful year without hockey.

The first time I remember hearing about a possible lockout was during the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs.  The Wings, unfortunately, ran into a little problem that year in the second round.  The Brick Wall's name was Mikka Kipprusoff and he was a thorn in our side the entire six-game series.  I still have nightmares about playing him (you know, the kind where you are on a breakaway against Kipp and realize you don't know how to skate.)

Throughout the entire playoffs, broadcasters and people involved with the game spoke about the looming lockout.  It was this dark rain cloud hanging over everyone's head.  Even the dual-Cinderella story of Calgary and Tampa Bay making the Finals couldn't overcome the feeling of dread surrounding the league.  Perhaps the only moment that the sun showed through was when Gary Bettman handed the Cup to Dave Andreychuk who had waited 22 seasons to feel the weight of the magnificent trophy in his arms.  The next morning, however, that storm had reappeared on the horizon.

I was only 15 that summer and my knowledge of the inner workings of the NHL was limited.  To be honest, I knew that the Wings paid a lot to win a lot and that Glen Sather was horrible at what he did.  Beyond that, I was clueless.  I started to read up on the situation online and found a lot of biased information out there.  Everything seemed to be slanted to skew public opinion in favor of either the players or owners.  In the end, though, all the hatred from the fans was focused on Gary Bettman, the commissioner who was leading the league to a lockout.

It was a long summer spent listening to the two sides try to hammer out a deal.  The owners were playing hardball, demanding things like a hard cap and an emphasis on scoring and offensive flow to decrease player salaries and increase profits.  I didn't know what to think or who was right or what I wanted to happen.  The only thing I did know was that I hated whomever was inching us closer to missed hockey.

Right around the time when the preseason normally starts, the previous CBA was set to expire.  Ten years old and the result of the only other NHL lockout, the CBA was extremely loose.  It allowed our Detroit Red Wings to essentially buy the 2002 Stanley Cup by spending nearly $70 million on just player salaries that season (for comparison, next year's cap is set at $64 million).  The words most commonly thrown out there were "salary cap."

The owners wanted to strictly limit what the players could make.  They didn't want teams spending $100 million on players in a season, a milestone that the Rangers, Red Wings, and Flyers were all racing toward.  I remember one interview on ESPN with someone from the union saying that a salary cap was 'just a way for owners and GMs to protect them from themselves' and that 'smart spending would negate any need for a cap while avoiding any limitations on player salaries.'  To me, that sounded right on the mark.  I remember saying things like "the rich get richer" and "the fans are the ones who will lose."  In the end, though, it did not matter.

On September 16, 2004, the CBA expired and the forever looming lockout finally began.  There was absolutely no hockey and there would be no hockey until they figured things out.  Bettman was evil, the owners were greedy, and the players were dumb for stopping their jobs for a year.  I hated that day with a passion and even my grandfather was saddened by the news; his usual "Hello, Joshua!" greeting was replaced with "Josh, can you believe hockey is done for?"

It was another month until the possibility of a missed season started showing up.  You see, no one cares if you lose pre-season or free agency or training camps or a draft.  People only start caring once games are lost.  Once a few games of the 2004-2005 season were lost, the media started scrambling with stories about how the NHL lockout would cost the league an entire season and, perhaps, destroy what remained of the league.

Bullshit.  That was what I said and it was just the second time I had ever sworn in my lifetime.  There was no way there would be a full year without hockey, the two sides would come to an agreement.  They had to, right?

The players didn't really think so.  Players spread around the globe as they tried to stay active.  Players like Pavel Datsyuk and Vincent Lecavalier bolted for Russia while Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley opted for neutral ground in Switzerland.  Closer to home, Chris Chelios, Kris Draper, and Derian Hatcher chose to play with the Fraser-based Motor City Mechanics.  I remember an episode of Scrubs where Dr. Cox (played by John C. McGinley, longtime friend of Chelios and huge Red Wings supporter) sported a Chelios Mechanics jersey in lieu of his standard Red Wings apparel.  With their home arena just 10 minutes from my house, I found this to be unbelievably cool.

Overall, the year was awful.  As we inched forward, the talks of a lost season gained steam.  Media members set dates for when a season could be salvaged, some as soon as Christmas.  It felt like reporters wanted there to be no season.  Possible game totals dwindled from 80 to 70 to 60 quicker than I ever thought possible.  All Star Weekend was cancelled.  Finally, on February 16, 2005, Gary Bettman announced the cancellation of the 2005 NHL season.  The league wished for a $40 million salary cap and eventually raised it to $42.5 million, but the players were willing to go no lower than $47 million.  The season was lost.

No Red Wings for a full year.  I remember hearing that on ESPN when I got home from school that day and feeling ill.  There would be no hockey at all until at least September and all anyone could do is sit around and wait for the matter to be resolved.

That conclusion did not come for many more months.  The draft was still held and every team was given a chance at the first pick (and thus Crosby), though Pittsburgh won it for their third straight Top 2 pick (selecting Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, and Sidney Crosby).  It finally ended on July 22, 2005.

Despite having hockey back, it was not the same.  Two-line passes were, thankfully, eliminated.  The "Brodeur Rule" put four more lines on the ice to stop goalies from moving the puck.  The salary cap forced the Wings to cut 50% of their pre-lockout salary, mainly by buying out Derian Hatcher, Ray Whitney, and longtime fan favorite Darren McCarty.  The move effectively ended McCarty's career.

In addition to McCarty, many others saw their careers shortened by the lockout.  Previously mentioned Dave Andreychuk only made it into January of the next season.  Scott Stevens, legendary defenseman, never played another game.  The likes of Sakic, Yzerman, Shanahan, and others likely saw their careers shortened by the lockout.  Yzerman and Shanahan retired just short of the huge 700-goal mark that former teammate Brett Hull had reached while with the Wings just a few seasons previous.  The amount of hockey lost due to the lockout was, and still is, substantial.

With all that said, we now face another looming lockout.  With the salary cap now spiraling out of control, the NHL may be forced to lock the players out again next summer to wrangle that deal out.  Thankfully, the NHL stands to gain far too much from the NBA and NFL possibly missing games to throw that all away.  A lockout may happen, but I openly doubt that we would lose games this time around. 

Unfortunately, though, we have already lost enough games for one lifetime.