Hockey fans got the gift they were asking for on Sunday morning when word broke that the NHL and the NHL Players Association reached an agreement to end the lockout and save some portion of the NHL season. We will have hockey and that's good news.
With one exception, you'll have to look elsewhere for winners and losers in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement as we're neither experts on labor law nor inclined to call anyone a winner when they collectively spat in the faces of their fans for so many months. We will say that Gary Bettman's reign as NHL commissioner -- this is the second season shortened by labor strife to go along with one wiped out altogethe -- has been an embarrassment given the way every fight seems to come back to struggling markets that Bettman forced into the league in the first place.
He works at the pleasure of the owners, so you can feel free to extend the agita in that direction if so inclined, but years of experience in these matters suggests it is far more enjoyable to just embrace the return of the sport you enjoy. These labor disputes make it feel like a waste of time to bother caring about sports, a feeling that can only be washed away by actually watching sports.
And, yes, fans will be watching the games. The so-called "casual" fans are impossible to project, but hardcore hockey fans are going to come right back the same way fans in all sports come back after labor fights that lead to a lot of posturing about walking away from the game forever.
It's what we do, for better or for worse. The league knows it, the players know it and we know it even as we might wish it weren't so at some moments.
The schedule hasn't quite been hammered out yet, but it looks like a 48 or 50-game season that would get underway in a little less than two weeks. That's a sprint to the starting line and it will be a sprint to the finish line, just like last year's NBA season.
A big pro of that is that there's simply no filler in the schedule as there's no time for games against the other conference that don't really matter all that much in the final standings. Every game will matter a great deal and it will be like one big playoff run, which is a good thing since playoff hockey is the very best kind of hockey.
The flip side is that there isn't nearly enough time in the season for the cream to rise to the top, especially not with the limited prep time and the wildly different conditions of players who have been playing during the lockout against those who haven't been in competitive situations. That's going to make for messy hockey that will not be all that pleasing to the eye.
That should likely worry the Rangers more than the Devils or Islanders since they were on the short list of contenders for the title heading into the now mythical 82-game 2012-2013 season. The shorter 2013 only season is one that won't reward them for their painstaking team-building of the last few years nor their big trade for Rick Nash, who will now have to integrate with his new teammates on the fly in games that matter a great deal.
While the Devils made it to the Cup last season, they lost Zach Parise to free agency and Adam Henrique broke his hand playing in the AHL, so they aren't really in the same position as they were when we last saw hockey on these shores. The Islanders are just waiting to move to Brooklyn, although having a player as good as John Tavares should give them a shot on nights when messy hockey means wide open hockey.
There will be time enough to break down the specifics for all the teams. For now, though, it's not about the results of the games.
It's about the return of the game after far too much time in conference rooms instead of locker rooms.