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Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby speaks to reporters during a news conference in New York, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby speaks to reporters during a news conference in New York, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

NHL LOCKOUT

Youngsters front and centre in players PR campaign Add to ...

They appeared, one after the other, no one more than 28 years old, and all of them the instantly recognizable stars of an NHL that has gotten so very young.

Sidney Crosby. Jonathan Toews. David Backes. James Reimer. And Gabriel Landeskog, the youngest of the group at just 19.

Those four fledgling captains and one Toronto Maple Leafs netminder were put front and centre by the National Hockey League Players’ Association on Day 1 of the lockout last Sunday, allowing them to address fans via YouTube even though none of them had even been through a union war before.

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This is the fresh new face of the players’ public relations campaign against the league, one that has taken to social media and involved speaking out in a way that was never possible eight years ago.

And if you ask the veterans who went through the 2004-05 lockout, they’ll tell you the prominence of the younger players in this fight is one of the most dramatic changes.

“For me last time, I was a young guy and you felt like you couldn’t really say much,” Maple Leafs centre Matt Lombardi said. “The young guys this time around are really involved and voicing their opinions. They know that this is going to affect them for the next part of their careers. It’s definitely different.”

As has been fairly well documented, the NHL as a whole has become a young man’s league in the seven seasons since it last missed a full year.

The average age of the game’s top 20 scorers has dropped by almost a full year, with nearly double the number of players 25 and under hitting the 50-point mark as there were eight years ago.

On the blueline, the effect has been even more dramatic, with the average age of the 20 defencemen with the most ice time falling by more than three years (30.6 to 27.5).

Three things have helped usher in that trend, with the first and most obvious one being the last collective bargaining agreement, which featured capped entry-level salaries and a much lower free-agency age.

Add in the results of better training methods for juniors and the removal of a lot of clutching and grabbing, and young, cheap and quick players have become more the norm.

Part of what’s allowed younger players to become more vocal and involved, meanwhile, is simply the technology that wasn’t widely in use eight years ago.

For some, that’s meant expressing their – sometimes colourful – opinions on Twitter.

“So sick of this lockout,” Buffalo Sabres rookie Jhonas Enroth tweeted on Wednesday, four days into the stoppage. “Playing in the NHL has been a lifelong dream and now we can’t [because NHL commissioner Gary Bettman] wants more money from us?”

For others, it’s meant simply connecting with the NHLPA to keep up on negotiations and ask questions.

“A big difference [from the last lockout] is the amount of information that’s available and how quickly we receive it,” Buffalo Sabres veteran Ryan Miller said. “We’ve had meetings that are open to any player, including sitting in on negotiations. We get information through e-mail, a lot of conference calls and even an app for smart phones. We all feel involved because we are informed.”

The NHL was a rather old league entering the last lockout and that played out in CBA negotiations. The key figures ended up being such players Trevor Linden, Chris Chelios, Brendan Shanahan, Mathieu Schneider and Trent Klatt – all of whom were past 30 and nearing the end of their careers.

Current players also believe former NHLPA head Bob Goodenow wasn’t as readily accessible to his membership as Donald Fehr has attempted to be, which potentially made it more intimidating to be vocal as a young player eight years ago.

This time, the Crosbys and Toews will be a big part of spreading the message, even as a veteran-laden 31 player negotiating committee does plenty of the behind the scenes work.

That youth movement may even affect the outcome of the lockout, as some players on that committee such as Backes, Shea Weber, John Tavares and Cory Schneider could ultimately be playing under whatever terms they agree to for more than a decade.

They have more to lose in this fight than veterans almost on the way out, which some players say has led to being more engaged in the process, including the huge turnout to New York for meetings last week.

“When you get 285 guys to fly somewhere and really listen to what Don had to say in 10 hours of meetings, it was pretty convincing that the guys are willing to stick together,” Backes said. “And get a good deal here.”

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