By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) – An NHL season that nearly never was will be remembered as one that set the course for a bright new future in a seminal year bookended by a deal that secured a decade of labor peace and a multi-billion TV agreement.
It was a rough start to 2013 with players locked out by owners, the New Year’s Day outdoor Winter Classic canceled and the season on the brink of being scrapped before a last-gasp deal in early January salvaged a 48-game schedule.
The year, however, will end on a much more upbeat note as National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman announced last month a whopping 12-year $5.2 billion Canadian TV rights deal that is the largest for the NHL.
On another bargaining front, the NHL faced off with the International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee before agreeing to extend their Olympic participation so players can compete in the February 7-23 Sochi Games.
While much of the drama was generated around negotiation tables there was plenty of action on the ice as well.
The Chicago Blackhawks claimed a second Stanley Cup in four seasons by beating the Boston Bruins in a pulsating, bone-jarring Final that pitted two of the league’s Original Six teams against each other for the first time since 1979.
A breathtaking postseason reminded disillusioned fans of all that is good and fascinating about ice hockey, undoing a good chunk of the damage done by the bitter labor dispute.
The season culminated in a rollicking Finals that featured three overtimes before the Stanley Cup was finally hoisted on a sweltering summer night in Boston when Chicago scored twice in the final 76 seconds to clinch the best-of-seven series in six games in front of a stunned crowd.
Washington Capitals Russian sniper Alexander Ovechkin skated away with the NHL’s top individual honors by claiming the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player for a third time in six seasons along with the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for being the leading goal scorer.
But for all his accomplishments, Ovechkin’s sparkling resume remained incomplete as he was again unable to get his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
Flush with cash and a new 10-year labor deal in place, the NHL marketing machine shifted into high gear in 2013, promoting the return of the Winter Classic to Detroit on January 1 where the Red Wings will take on the Toronto Maple Leafs in an outdoor game expected to attract an NHL record crowd of nearly 110,000.
Operating under the belief you can never have too much of a good thing, the NHL announced it will stage six outdoor games this season from Los Angeles to New York.
The outdoor extravaganza begins in Detroit on New Year’s Day and ends with the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators squaring off in the Heritage Classic at BC Place, the venue used for the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
In between, the NHL will stage a four-game Stadium Series with contests at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Soldier Field in Chicago and two games at New York’s Yankee Stadium.
“One of the most important things to come out of the negotiations was 10 years of labor peace and that is allowing us to begin to execute the plans we have for growing the game and growing revenues,” John Collins, the NHL’s chief operating officer, told Reuters.
“We’ve added a lot of blue chip partners on the broadcast and the sponsorship side, who said they like where the game is and like where it’s going and want to spend money promoting and activating around hockey.”
But just when it seemed like smooth sailing ahead, new storm clouds arrived in the form of a class action lawsuit against the NHL last month by former players claiming the league did not do enough to reduce the risk of concussions.
The lawsuit came less than three months after the National Football League paid $765 million to settle a similar lawsuit brought by thousands of former players, many suffering from dementia and health problems.
Bettman, who has never backed away from a fight, dismissed the lawsuit and immediately issued a statement saying the NHL intended “to defend the case vigorously.”