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NBA games still aren’t being played and the possibility of losing an entire season looms ever larger. Missing an entire season may or may not result in a league that is more financially sound (profitable for owners). It seems certain that missing an entire season will do, at least, some short-term damage to the league’s fan-base. But, beyond missing paychecks for the opportunity to defend your long-term financial interests, what does it mean for the players? What does it mean for the development of young players to miss 82 games of high-level experience? What does it mean for aging players to miss a season as their careers are winding down? How will it affect teams who finished last season with a terrific amount of momentum? How will the divisive labor negotiations transform relationships between players?
Over the past few months several writers have drawn connections between the NBA’s current labor impasse and that of the NHL, which caused the cancellation of the entire 2004-2005 hockey season. Most of that discussion has focused on the role of player agents, similarities in rhetoric and financial implications. I love watching hockey but have a preference for the unpolished exuberance of small college and local semi-pro teams, Go Suns! Consequently, I don’t know much about the NHL, historically or currently. Fed by curiosity, I sought out a hockey expert who could help me understand more about how the NHL lockout affected player development and team building. Greg Wyshynski, of the Yahoo NHL blog, Puck Daddy, was nice enough to share some of his thoughts on how these issues shook out for the NHL.
H-H: Even before things fell off a cliff, players were already seizing opportunities to sign with teams overseas. If the entire NBA season is cancelled a tour with a European club could provide the opportunity to continue playing basketball and at a somewhat similar level. The concern is that the style of play overseas varies wildly and can be very different from the style of play in the NBA. Do European pro-hockey leagues have a significantly different style of play? In general, what sorts of experiences did NHL players who spent the lockout overseas encounter?
GW: The style of hockey overseas is less physical, a combination of hockey culture and the size of the ice surfaces (larger than in North America). The biggest challenge for NHL players might have been communication — obviously, there are language barriers that needed to be broken down for a Canadian player heading to Russia.
As far as the experiences, I’d point you to this link:
And this story:
“Ak Bars Kazan pulled a page from the New York Rangers’ book, with similar results. Based in Kazan, a small city in the eastern republic of Tatarstan, the Snow Leopards spent a reported $65 million US on a roster that included Nikolai Khabibulin, Vincent Lecavalier, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Kovalev, Dany Heatley and Darius Kasparaitis. But the big names failed to produce and Kazan lost in the first playoff round. The Russian champions, Dynamo Moscow, had a budget reported at $20 million US.”
H-H: A professional athlete’s career is relatively short. A lost season is significant for players of all different ages and skill levels. During the NHL’s lost season, were there any young players whose development was hampered by missing a year? Were there any older players whose window of significance closed a little quicker? Were there any stars whose legacy was impacted by losing a year of their prime?
GW: The young players, IMO, weren’t affected. But older players were.
Players like Jeremy Roenick, Peter Forsberg, Dominik Hasek, Brendan Shanahan, Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman all lost a year near the end of their careers. Dave Andreychuk, coming off a Stanley Cup championship with the Lightning, returned as an ineffective player and was waived by the team in Jan. 2006. This after a 21-goal campaign in the previous season. He ended with 640 goals; there’s no telling how many were left on the table because of the lockout.
Brian Leetch was another player who might have lost his last productive year to the lockout, too.
H-H: The effect of a lost NBA season on teams as a whole could be just as significant as on individuals. During the NHL’s lost season, were there young, up-and-coming teams who lost their momentum? Were there any aging teams who saw their windows closed?
GW: The Stanley Cup champion Lightning looked a little dynastic in winning the title, but barely made the playoffs in the following season before the team started to break up in the coming seasons.
The Flyers had 101 points in back to back seasons, but they were a veteran club poised to win in 2004 and then had to shed some of those vets in the year after the lockout.
If nothing else, the implementation of the salary cap had the biggest influence on teams going from contenders in 2004 to also-rans in 2006.
H-H: Although the NBPA has presented a united front there have been chinks in the armor. Some players have said they were frustrated that the league’s final offer wasn’t put to a vote for the entire union membership. In 2004-2005, were there divisions among NHL players during negotiations and in the pre-Twitter/Facebook era, how much of that information was available to the public? Did any of this manifest in chemistry damage, or public disputes between players?
GW: Information about the players wasn’t really that available; you’d read or hear different statements here or there, but never got a sense of how fractured the NHLPA was. It was portrayed more as a battle between Bob Goodenow and Gary Bettman in the media. And I can’t recall many public disputes between players during the lockout — only afterward. It was more about the players snarking on the NHL.
Looking at the NHL’s lost season doesn’t leave much room for optimism about the NBA’s predicament. Like the NHL, NBA players who spend this season overseas are getting experience at a high level but in a game with a very different style and focus. International teams are looking for players who can help them win (or at least sell tickets) now, and there’s not much advantage for them in spending time, money or effort on player development.
In another year, the window may be open just a sliver for guys like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. The Celtics, Spurs and Mavericks, who may have all been holding their teams together with cortisone shots and athletic tape, could find that the window has closed completely before they play another game. The Pacers who ended last year feeling like they had pulled themselves out of the mire, may return to the court in ten months to find that the murky water is once again over their heads.
Players like Glen Davis, Samardo Samuels and Stephen Curry have all made public statements that fall out of line with union talking points, sometimes drastically so. I find it hard to believe that there won’t be repercussions for those players in their relationships with more hawkish teammates. Paul Pierce and Garnett purposefully freezing out Davis in some earlier season slog against the Raptors is the first image that comes to mind.
What we’re losing is not just the games which would have been played in the present. We’re losing a bit of the past in shortening the careers of aging stars, and we’re losing a bit of our future in reducing opportunities for young players and teams to develop. We’re cutting chunks of out past legacies and of those that haven’t been built yet. The heartening lesson to take from the NHL is that losing a season doesn’t mean losing everything. The painful reality is that it does mean losing a lot.