Hockey is back

January 31st, 2013

In some cases, it doesn’t take a lot to make me happy. This year’s NHL schedule is one of those cases: 48 regular season games over four months, rather than the usual 82 games over seven months.

I’m just happy to see some hockey.

After the NBA and NFL had their lockouts and collective bargaining disputes that ran into their seasons, the NHL decided to have their own. The only problem was that the NHL had been down this road many times before.

The first lockout was during the 1994-1995 season, which was resolved in time to play 48 games, just like this one. The second time the league and players decided to play hardball with each other, during what should have been the 2004-2005 season, there was no hockey. The entire season was cancelled.

Just after the second lockout was around the time I got into hockey. I had been a casual fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins up to that point. I knew of one of their players – some guy named Mario Lemieux.

Then came the draft lottery, where the Penguins won the first pick and the chance to draft young phenom Sidney Crosby. He, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang and others have been tormenting opponents on the ice ever since. The team won the Stanley Cup, arguably the greatest championship trophy in sports, in 2009.

Yes, I’ve written about hockey before in this column space. But I left you in that column last October with a slight cliffhanger. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association had not come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. Three months later, the two sides finally started seriously playing “Let’s Make A Deal,” and came to terms on a new agreement on Jan. 6.

Hence, the league developed a 48-game schedule, and teams began play on Jan. 19. Finally.

Many were concerned how the fans would react to yet another work stoppage. The Penguins opened a scrimmage to fans at their home arena, charging no admission. The fans responded by standing out in the cold for hours, waiting to get in. An estimated 18,000 people jammed into Consol Energy Center just to watch their beloved Penguins hold a scrimmage. The president of the team was so astounded by the fan response that he opened up the luxury suites for fans to stand and watch the team.

Yeah, I’d say the fans are excited to have hockey back.

On paper, the Penguins have an insane amount of talent. They should win the Cup this season, or at least have a great chance to do so.

In the last few years, however, the Penguins suffered humiliating playoff exits. Most recently, their hated cross-state rival, the Philadelphia Flyers, crushed Pittsburgh in six games. The overall beatdown the Pens suffered was hard to watch.

So, I am most excited to see Pittsburgh play with some physicality and grit. The results have been okay so far. The Pens opened their season on Jan. 19 with a big win at Philadelphia.

Malkin and Crosby should also be fully healthy from their injuries and ready to go. They’ve looked impressive so far, with James Neal also providing his lightning-quick shot to put pucks in the net.

If you walk by the newsroom on Tuesday, chances are we’ll have hockey on the TV. I’m looking forward to Sunday’s game against the Washington Capitals. If the Pens win, I have newsroom bragging rights over Assistant Sports Editor Joe Ginley for a while.

And while I’ve talked about Pittsburgh,  JCU has plenty of Sabres, Blues, Blue Jackets, Blackhawks and Red Wings fans. They’ll tell you the same thing I’ve said: Drop the puck, already.