Because the owners and players of the NHL could not agree on a new union contract before the start of the regular season last fall, hockey owners "locked out" the players and put the season on indefinite hold. For 113 days, the two sides bickered and squabbled and fans of NHL teams sat on the sidelines, helpless to effect any agreement.
Faced with a self-imposed season ending cut off date, a compromise was finally reached in the wee hours of January 6, with the first NHL game scheduled for January 19.
Before the CBA was formally ratified, NHL teams addressed the lockout with statements designed to lure back fans who had been disillusioned during the lockout. Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, along with GM John McDonough, released a letter to fans thanking them for their patience and loyalty but omitting any apology. Other teams have been equally tepid, although the Penguins released a statement that acknowledged the fans' unhappiness with the lockout.
We offer our apology. There is nothing we can say to explain or excuse what has happened over the past four months.
However, now that the NHL is back, we want to assure you that the Pittsburgh Penguins will do everything we can to regain your trust and show how much we value your amazing support.
Fans have reacted to these statements in one of two ways. Either they think owners should be grovelling more, or they don't think any statement makes a difference either in what fans feel or in luring them back to the rink.
Both sides are probably right.
But here's what I think the owners missed, while they were busy trying to carve out a more advantageous union contract to the detriment of the fans: The NHL doesn't have exclusive rights to the game of hockey.
During those 113 days of the lockout, hockey was still played on rinks throughout the world.
Youth hockey clubs held tryouts and teams were chosen and league games began. College hockey started and old rivals faced each other once again across a puck. Junior hockey continued, and the USA won the World Junior Hockey Championship. (USA! USA! USA!)
And middle-aged men still gathered on Friday nights at hometown rinks to play in adult leagues, because they love the game so much that they're unwilling to stop playing despite their aching knees and slower slap shots.
The NHL isn't hockey. Long after the NHL ceases to exist in its current form, boys and girls will still strap on a pair of skates and shoot a puck across a frozen backyard pond. Hockey moms will still be waiting for their semi-frozen children to get off that backyard rink, ready with hot chocolate and a warm jacket.
Friends and families will still gather in a rink, somewhere, bound together by their loyalty to the players and the game, not the organization whose jersey the players currently wear.
The NHL is able to gather the best players in the world together, and organize a season of games. If it didn't exist, those players would still be good, and would be playing somewhere, albeit for not as much money, if any. And yes, we fans love our teams and are loyal to them, but we love the game more. There's always a hockey game, somewhere, to watch.