On opening night of the lockout-shortened 1994-95 NHL season, as the New York Rangers raised the banner to celebrate the Stanley Cup they’d won the previous June, Colin Campbell’s mind was elsewhere. In the off-season, he’d become the team’s new head coach after Mike Keenan left for St. Louis.
Campbell was focused on the future, not the past, specifically, his starting lineup for the opener against the Buffalo Sabres. Mark Messier, the driving force behind the championship season, was in a contract dispute, and with moments to go until puck drop, hadn’t signed.
“So it’s my first game as the head coach after we’d been waiting so long and I had two lineups ready to go,” Campbell said. “One had Ken Gernander starting at centre, the other Mark Messier. The official scorer was waiting outside our dressing room and I kept asking our PR guy: ‘Is he signed? Is he signed?’”
Messier did come to terms just in time and was in the lineup for a 2-1 loss in what Campbell remembered was “a pretty good game for us. But [Sabres goalie Dominik] Hasek stood on his head and we lost 2-1 and then we were behind the eight-ball right away.
“It was hard to catch up that year.”
The 48 games played in 1994-95 represented a wonderfully chaotic, weirdly unpredictable season, where everything was upside down.
“But it was also the best hockey I’ve ever been a part of,” insisted Kelly Hrudey, who played goal for the Los Angeles Kings that year and is now an analyst for Hockey Night in Canada. “It was awesome. It was an amazing sprint from start to finish.
“Training camp was only three or four days long and I remember vividly being really scared during the first practice because as a goalie, I felt way behind everybody else, and knowing there wasn’t much time to get ready. We tied the first game 3-3 with the Toronto Maple Leafs in L.A. and I let in one, maybe two, ordinary goals. I think it was the next day that [coach] Barry Melrose came and talked to me about it. He said, ‘Unfortunately, in a 48-game schedule, with only intraconference games, we really can’t afford that.’
“It was amazing to feel that sort of pressure that quickly in a season. Every game was just so important.”
Normally, the NHL regular season is long and forgiving, and a team can make up ground if it falls behind early – or can sputter after a fast start. But the 48-game season was, as Hrudey noted, less of a marathon and more of a sprint. Any team quick out of the gate had a chance to make the playoffs, and the team that won the Stanley Cup, the New Jersey Devils, was a heavy underdog and started every series on the road. Parity had not become the watchword it is today, but the shrunken schedule kept every team except the sad-sack Ottawa Senators (9-34-5) alive until the final week or so.
In the 12-team Western Conference, the gap between the playoff-bound Dallas Stars and the last-place Anaheim Ducks was five points. Hrudey’s Kings needed a tie in their final game against the Chicago Blackhawks to qualify, but lost instead and came up one point short.
The Pacific Division champions that year were the Calgary Flames, under third-year coach Dave King. Unlike this year, the 1994-95 lockout didn’t begin until the end of training camp, so King had time to get his system in place ahead of time.
“There’s no question that it helps to be an incumbent coach and have a nucleus of players that have been there and had played for you,” King said. “It doesn’t take a lot of time to review, because that’s all you’re doing in a shortened season – reviewing.
“With a first-year coach, you’re going to have to build things as the season goes along, recognizing that in a short season, winning early is important.”
Pat Quinn’s Vancouver Canucks lost the final the previous year to Keenan’s Rangers. In the off-season, Quinn stepped aside in favour of Rick Ley to become the team’s full-time general manager.
Quinn recalled the hurry-up nature of 1994-95 as “a difficult time because for a lot of us, it was our first experience with a genuine lockout. We had the players walk away for a short time before [the 10-day strike in 1991-92] so you were just basically winging it. None of us had any real experience at it, so you were just concerned about your players and how they came back in.
“A lot of teams didn’t have their players come in right and for teams who have a bunch of those players, they could get behind really early.
“We’re in danger of injury. All kinds of bad things can happen out of this.”
On the plus side, motivation wasn’t an issue, said King, who said he could remember “so clearly the enthusiasm of the guys, and that made everything kind of work. You knew there would be a few parts of your game that wouldn’t be perfect to start with, but their energy was terrific.
“To me, the one position I worried about the most was the goalkeepers. The first one or two games, you’re always worried about soft-tissue injuries to your goalkeepers. Your skaters can deal with that a little better, but if a goalie comes in and pops a groin in a short schedule, or strains a hip flexor and he’s going to be out a couple of weeks, that’s a big difference.
“Not a lot of our goalies are playing in Europe, because Europe doesn’t want a lot of our goalies. Plus, if you watch goalies skating informally now, they’re not having to work the way they normally would in an NHL practice.”