By Darren Eliot –
So, the NHL is going to lock out the players yet again. No wonder I feel as if I’ve written this article before. Because I have. In the fall of 2004, I was high atop Air Canada Center in Toronto with my play-by-play partner Sam Rosen calling the final of the World Cup of Hockey. Canada won 3-2 over Finland, the crowd went wild and then the NHL closed up shop the next day. Canada won on Sept. 14 in Toronto and the league went dark Sept. 15, as Commissioner Bettman made it official in New York: no NHL hockey.
It was an eerie, unsettling feeling leaving the Air Canada Center as everyone in the business – players, coaches, broadcasters, cameramen, audio engineers – lingered and longed to know when this impending lockout would end. It ended in a lost season, of course, and when the league started up anew, it was with a salary cap, escrow and salary rollbacks for the players. In between, people scrambled to find alternate work, including players flocking to Europe and color analysts like yours truly filing college football reports for TBS. That was the fall when I reaffirmed that my love of hockey far outweighs any need to be on TV. Chasing a college coach through the end zone at halftime to ask, “What adjustments does your team need to make for the second half kick-off?” didn’t do anything for me.
Which brings me to where we are in 2012 – staring down yet another NHL lockout and where I am this time around. In 2004, I was living in Atlanta, Ga. The NHL lockout left a real void in a sparsely populated hockey landscape. Personally, I devoted my time to the Junior Thrashers youth program and hockey in the south in general. Very rewarding, but it lacked context, with the ECHL’s Gwinnett Gladiators the only professional team operating in the state. Now back home here in Michigan, this time I’m in the only state that has hockey at every top level: NHL, AHL, NCAA, USHL, OHL, NAHL, NA3HL, the list goes on and on. Cross off the NHL and that leaves plenty of quality hockey for fans to take in. Add in high-profile tournaments, Tier One Elite League and High Performance Hockey League showcases and you can see the game has plenty of options for fans – even with the top option scratched.
Plus, there are events like the final season of the CCHA – a Michigan tradition for more than 40 years – and the Hockeytown Winter Festival that includes the Great Lakes Invitational down at Comerica Park. The AHL, OHL as well as the NCAA will all be part of the festival with or without the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor. Hopefully, the NHL lockout doesn’t drag on that long, but if you’re taking a cue from NBC Sports, enjoy that they are hedging their Winter Classic coverage by offering more college hockey. We get to see CCHA hockey on Fox Sports Detroit as always. Their college coverage isn’t lockout protection – it is part of the hockey fabric here in Michigan.
I covered the CCHA last year on FS Detroit and enjoyed the experience immensely. I’m looking forward to being part of the coverage again for the upcoming season: Seeing the sophomores take that next step; witnessing freshmen enthusiasm; understanding the mindset of the seniors; is Bowling Green back?; a remodeled Yost; another championship at the Joe; a repeat for the Big Slubowski and Western? All this and more will be wrapped up in the celebration that is the swan song of the CCHA as a conference. It should be great, and the CCHA is just one such option to get excited about this season.
The AHL had its strongest season in over 30 years when last we locked out. That makes the Grand Rapids Griffins must-see this season, especially with players like Gustav Nyquist returning after a taste of the NHL last season. Likewise, the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, Saginaw Spirit, Windsor Spitfires, London Knights and Sarnia Sting all are worth the price of admission, with newly-drafted NHL hopefuls focused on hockey instead of what’s going on in “the show”. Former NHL tough man Jim MacKenzie is behind the bench for his first full season for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, giving fans a place to see USHL hockey, along with games in Ann Arbor as the USA Hockey National Development Team competes in the USHL, as well.
So, with all these opportunities to see great hockey here in our state, I hope you feel better about the NHL lockout. Compared to last time, I know I do. And I even get to be on TV as a hockey guy.