Anything is Better Than Nothing

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Dec. 24) – With the NHL lockout duration now into triple figures, there is growing concern that an abbreviated schedule would lack substance. First, let us get to that stage. Given that the owners and players are incommunicado, there is no guarantee even a single game will be played. After that – and pending an agreement by Jan. 14 – most hockey fans will quickly notice the benefit of a 48 to 56-game schedule. I can tell you that from experience.

Though intra-conference play adds variety to a full NHL season, a truncated schedule necessitates competition from within. Given recollection of the 48-game exercise from January to May 1995 (my first season covering the Maple Leafs full time), it can be rather appealing. Moreover, if the NHL could cram, say, 56 games into a shortened season, each club would play its 14 Conference opponents four times – two home, two away. As such, every match would be a proverbial four-pointer. A five-game win streak would vault a team into immediate playoff contention while a losing skein of similar length would be virtually disastrous. Such a schedule would have the feel of a four-month playoff sprint before the actual thing. In short, you would enjoy it.

Most importantly, it would enable competition for the Stanley Cup. The largest blight on the canceled season of 2004-05 appears in the NHL Guide under Stanley Cup Winners. Only twice in league history has the silver mug not been presented. In 1919, a flu epidemic wiped out the championship series between Montreal Canadiens and Seattle Metropolitans. The official NHL record book at least acknowledges a reason for the Stanley Cup void under the words “No decision.” The 2005 column is merely accompanied by blank space – a reference to there being no meritorious disguise for lack of a winner. Among those who care, it is an unsightly blemish.

EVERYTHING ELSE ASIDE, THERE IS ABOUNDING REASON TO PLAY FOR THE STANLEY CUP THIS SPRING. THE 2005 RECORD BOOK OMISSION UNDER “CUP WINNER” IS UGLY. IN 1967 – AS PER THE ABOVE PROGRAM CENTRE-SPREAD FROM A LATE-SEASON GAME AT THE MONTREAL FORUM – LEAFS AND CANADIENS SQUARED OFF FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP.

Another concern about a shortened season is that the Stanley Cup would be somewhat bogus; in-indicative of a true champion. Though New Jersey – with 52 points in 48 games – finished fourth in the 1995 Eastern schedule (behind Quebec, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia) before sweeping Detroit in the Cup final, its championship was anything but a mirage. Devils appeared in the title round three times in the ensuing eight years, winning the Cup twice (2000 and 2003) while losing in seven games to Colorado (2001).

Far more illusory were Cup final appearances after full NHL seasons by Minnesota (1991), Montreal (1993), Florida (1996), Buffalo (1999), Carolina (2002), Anaheim (2003), Tampa Bay and Calgary (2004) and Edmonton (2006). Among the aforementioned, only Carolina and Anaheim made it back to the championship round – both winning (in 2006 and 2007). Ottawa was a worthy Eastern representative in 2007, having compiled 105 points in the regular season before knifing through the regional playoffs in 15 games. But, the Senators haven’t since come close to a repeat accomplishment.

Therefore, and as evidenced here, it is unnecessary to color or pre-judge a championship effort, should one be attainable in this lockout-marred season. Avoiding another blank line next to the 2013 Stanley Cup winner is reason enough to “tolerate” a shortened NHL schedule.

NOTATION (ABOVE) IN NHL RECORD BOOK THAT SHOWS REASON FOR STANLEY CUP VOID IN THE SPRING OF 1919. NOT UNTIL 86 YEARS LATER – AND FOR AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT REASON – WOULD THERE BE ANOTHER CUP VOID.

THE ANNUAL NHL GUIDE TRADITIONALLY DISPLAYS, ON ITS COVER, A PHOTO OF THE PREVIOUS YEAR’S STANLEY CUP CAPTAIN. THE 2004-05 GUIDE (ABOVE) SHOWED DAVE ANDREYCHUK OF TAMPA BAY RAISING THE CUP. THOUGH IT PROVED TO BE SOMEWHAT OF A COLLECTOR’S ITEM AFTER THE CANCELED SEASON, THE BOOK WAS A WASTE OF PRINT. ALL THE SAME INFORMATION (OTHER THAN A NEW SCHEDULE) APPEARED IN THE 2005-06 NHL GUIDE (BELOW) – MODESTLY ADORNED BY THE LEAGUE’S 30 LOGOS.

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