End of NHL lockout sent minor leagues into turmoilWritten by Vincent D. Scebbi | | firstname.lastname@example.org
With the puck dropping Jan. 19 in Los Angeles in front of a sold-out Staples Center, it was official – NHL hockey is back.
The beginning of the 48-game season closed the book on the 120-day lockout between team owners and the National Hockey League Players Association.
The heart of the issues debated between the two sides involved topics such as the length of player contracts and negotiating the salary cap.
“I just thought common sense would prevail and they would get it done,” said Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcok on the final settlement. “It was interesting because both sides were battling as hard as they could for the betterment of the game, in their mind.”
The shortened schedule has no inter-conference games and will end April 27. The Stanley Cup is expected to be awarded to the playoff champion by the end of June.
‘A sweet sigh of relief’
Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Todd Richards said it was a “sweet sigh of relief, but then it was back to work,” once he heard a compromise was made.
“The agreement was done, but we still couldn’t work; that was probably the worst part about it, trying to figure out how many days we were going to have and the schedule,” he said.
Blue Jackets defenseman and assistant captain Jack Johnson said things did not become a reality for him until the team was leaving to face the Nashville Predators for their season opener.
“It was a little surreal, actually, because you’re kind of sitting there like, ‘Is this for real?’ because you’ve been waiting so long,” Johnson said. “Even when we got to camp, it was kind of like ‘Are we really doing this?’ I don’t think it became a reality until we actually got on the plane to Nashville.”
Babcock said the accelerated schedule has put some pressure on his team, as they opened their season playing three games in four nights.
“I think if you’ve been playing, then your fitness is good,” he said following a 4-3 shootout win at Columbus on Jan. 21.
Richards said he expects conditioning to be a factor as the season progresses and injuries could be an issue for every team, as the demanding schedule takes its toll.
“One thing is that fine line as a coach and when do you need to teach, when do you need to work and when do you need to rest,” Richards said. “Combined with the travel and the demands on these guys, there’s a great demand on these guys on a playing standpoint and to find what’s best for your team at this moment.
“It’s going to be a day-by-day process; everyone’s got to deal with it. There’s no one team that’s in a different situation. We’re all going to have tough travel, we’re all going to have these back-to-back games; it’s going to be hard on everyone.”
Throughout the NHL, fans have been packing the arenas as they look to fill the void in their lives caused by the lockout.
The Blue Jackets’ home opener against the Red Wings on Jan. 21 saw Nationwide Arena sell out at 19,202, the largest attendance in the building’s history.
The next night, Detroit lived up to its nickname of Hockeytown as Joe Louis Arena sold out for the 72nd consecutive NHL game.
“The bottom line is the game’s in a great situation,” Babcock said. “We’re going to show our fans in Detroit that our fans have stuck with us that we’re so thankful of that”
Richards said with some of the negativity surrounding the league, he was concerned attendance would be low, but after watching opening day and hearing early reports Nationwide would be sold out, those concerns disappeared.
“I think the fans got a great treat tonight as far as the game and there have been some great games throughout the league,” Richards said.
Turmoil in the minors
For the Toledo Walleye, the end of the lockout came at possibly the worst time. Just as the announcement of a deal was made, the team was preparing to leave for a week-long road trip to Florida to face the defending Kelly Cup champion Florida Everblades.
At the exact halfway point of the season, Toledo was in a first-place tie in their division with the Cincinnati Cyclones.
Then following their Jan. 6 matchup against the Kalamazoo Wings, the Walleye roster was cleaned out as five players were to immediately report to Grand Rapids or Rockford, the team’s two American Hockey League affiliates.
That night, Terry Broadhurst, Ben Youds, Max Nicastro, Byron Froese and Brandon Svendson were sent up as AHL players were being called up to NHL camps.
While in Florida, the Walleye picked up defensemen Dean Moore and Tyler Miller as well as forward Patrick Knowlton of the Southern Professional Hockey League to help fill the space.
It seemed, however, that the Walleye took one step forward and two backward when Wes O’Neill signed a professional tryout contract (PTO) with the Providence Bruins of the AHL on Jan. 12 and left mid-trip.
The Walleye were also without defenseman Cody Lampl who stayed home because his wife gave birth to his daughter.
“We were in disarray defensively,” Vitucci said.
Toledo dropped all three games that week against the Everblades, letting early leads slip away in the final two.
“We could have won all three of them,” said Walleye head coach Nick Vitucci. “With the team we had down there, leaving there with three losses, sure you’re upset about that, but leaving there and honestly going, ‘Wow, we really could’ve won all three with this team that we have right now.’ I wasn’t that upset about that because of how hard we played.”
Of the three signed that week, Knowlton stayed with the team, Miller was dealt to the Everblades and Moore was released from the team.
As soon as the team returned to Ohio, forward Joey Martin signed a PTO with the Texas Stars, who played in Illinois from Jan. 16-21.
Players started to come in, however, as Erik Spady and forward Nino Musitelli signed contracts with Toledo and Tyler Brenner was sent down from the AHL Toronto Marlies.
The Walleye also signed defenseman Ben Woodley, a 6-foot 6-inch defenseman from the British Columbia Hockey League.
Martin also returned to the team on Jan. 22.
“We’re getting the pieces and if any one of these guys don’t do the job, we’re going to try to replace him with someone who will,” Vitucci said. “It’s great when your team is stable like how we were for the first half of the year. But now there’s a lot of moving parts and if any of them break, we’re going to look to try to improve on them.”
Vitucci said the team had a nice change in fortune the following week, as they had a full week of practice to prepare for two road games in Fort Wayne and Evansville, Ind., on Jan 18-19.
He said the week of practice was spent reviewing all of their systems, which helped the new players learn while refreshing the rest of the team.
“It gave us five days to get people in, get immigration done for them, get them in the housing, but also to give us four-to-five good days where we can review things and get everybody going,” Vitucci said.
The full week of practice and review helped the team as they swept both of their road games versus the Komets and IceMen.
Musitelli is already off to an early hot streak, picking up four points in his first two games as a Walleye, including a game-winning goal on Jan. 19 in Evansville.
No lockout, no sweat
Erik Ibsen, general manager of ticket sales for the Walleye and Toledo Mud Hens, said during the first half of the hockey season, ticket sales increased slightly.
He added that should the lockout have continued and the NHL season were postponed or canceled, he was expecting ticket sales to increase more.
“We think we probably got some benefit from them not playing so far; at the same time, we weren’t expecting to get any real benefits until this time of the year if the lockout did indeed continue,” Ibsen said. “We figured by now people would be missing their hockey fix and it would be getting into the homestretch of our season and we were going to see the potential for more fans due to the fact that the NHL wasn’t playing.”
Despite the fact ticket sales increased, Ibsen said there is no direct way to tell if it was because hockey fans were looking for a cure for the itch or other factors such as Toledo’s success on the ice.
Ibsen said he does not expect attendance to curb now that the lockout is over and, at the current rate, the Walleye are prepared to set the best attendance record in team history.
Team owner and general manager Joe Napoli said while there could be an increase in attendance due to the lockout, it is better for the sport when the NHL is in session.
“It always helps when they are playing; it increases awareness across the country and across the world,” Napoli said. “There is some short-term gain, but the short-term gains are not worth the long-term damage of a lockout.”
Napoli said one of the greatest dangers to the sport during any sport’s lockout is the possibility fans will “find other things to do and forget about hockey.”
While there may have been some fans getting their hockey fix, Ibsen said he saw more people at the Huntington Center who may not have been hockey fans.
“It was completely obvious if you spent an evening in the box office that all these people were coming that haven’t come before,” he said. “Most of the people who attended that hadn’t come before were people who maybe aren’t necessarily hockey fans, but they haven’t given the Walleye a try and it was a night out with friends, or a date night or part of a group outing.”