Actually, it’s not all about money.
Yes, the players are greedy and, yes, the owners are both greedy and stupid. (How else to you explain demanding a five-year maximum on contracts less than a full breath after handing out 13-year deals for the equivalent of the Greek national debt?)
But it’s also about careers – and in particular those careers that might one day end up under discussion for possible induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The loss of two seasons in eight years could result in a top NHL player in his prime missing one quarter of his very best years. Even the loss of a single year can have a drag effect on a player’s overall assessment. Much was made in June of Brendan Shanahan missing out on being called to the Hall. Considering that the year following the 2004-05 lockout Shanahan had one of his best seasons – 81 points for the Detroit Red Wings – and turned 37 that January, an equivalent total during the owners’ lockout might well have pushed him past one of the four who did get named to the Hall: Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, Adam Oates and Pavel Bure.
That lost year, had it never happened, might also have helped two other stars who came up just short during the selection committee’s voting this spring: Eric Lindros, who played for two years beyond the lockout, and Jeremy Roenick, who still had four more years left to play following 2004-05.
Starring at 37, as Shanahan did, is unusual but hardly unique. It happens. Even so, history has shown that the truly great players tend to shine brightest around age 25. The year Wayne Gretzky turned 25, 1985-86, the Edmonton Oilers star set the NHL scoring record of 215 points. Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux was 25 when he won the 1991 Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup playoffs’ most valuable player. Guy Lafleur came into full bloom at 25, scoring 136 points for the Montreal Canadiens dynasty he led through most of the 1970s.
It’s interesting to note, as well, that both Sakic and Sundin excelled around the same age. Sakic was 26 the year he scored 120 points and led the Colorado Avalanche to the 1996 Stanley Cup. Sundin’s best year as a Toronto Maple Leaf (94 points) came the winter he turned 26.
There are a fair number of elite players whose NHL careers were somewhat derailed during the last lockout, even if they played out the season in another league or on another continent. Jarome Iginla scored 96 points for the Calgary Flames when he was 24 and was entering superstar territory the year the league didn’t play. Iginla’s best seasons would follow – but what about that lost season when he was surely in his prime?
Rick Nash, who will be a new New York Ranger if there is a 2012-13 season, had his best scoring year in 2003-04 when he scored 41 goals and shared the Rocket Richard Trophy with Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk. The following season he played in Switzerland and counted 46 points in 44 games for HC Davos. Nash’s teammate, Joe Thornton, then a rising young star for the Boston Bruins, turned 25 just before the two headed off to play in Europe.
Kovalchuk was also entering his prime during the last lockout, having scored 87 points for the Atlanta Thrashers the year before and 98 points the year after.
Having found himself again last year with the New Jersey Devils – 83 points – Kovalchuk can hardly afford another lost season the year he enters his 30s.
The year Marian Hossa turned 25 there was no NHL hockey. He is now 33 and facing another lost year after a wonderful rebound season in which he scored 77 points for the Chicago Blackhawks. One day Hossa’s name may come up for consideration. Who can say what effect owners’ lockouts might have on the final assessment of what has been a most impressive career.
And then there is Evgeni Malkin. The Hockey News recently crowned him the No. 1 player in the game, following a remarkable season in which he won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer and the Hart and Ted Lindsay trophies as the league’s most valuable player.
It was also the season in which he was 25 years of age.
And what of Claude Giroux. Last year, the young Philadelphia Flyers forward scored 93 points and soared to the highest echelons of the game. Giroux will turn 25 – perhaps his greatest season, who knows? – on Jan. 12, 2013. He has no idea where he might be playing at that moment.
Jonathan Toews, the brilliant captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, who won the Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe Trophy and an Olympic gold medal at 22, will turn 25 on April 29, when normally he would expect to be well into the 2013 playoffs.
And then, of course, there is Sidney Crosby, whose contract and number both salute the day, month and year of his birthday: August 7, 1987.
He turned 25 this summer.
He says he’s healthy and ready to resume his well-earned position as the game’s pre-eminent player.
Pity, isn’t it, that his NHL résumé might have a blank page for what could well be the season of his life.