Sports column: NHL: No Hockey League

By Mike Szwaja

As I watched the Boston Red Sox prance around the grounds of Busch Stadium with the World Series Championship trophy on Wednesday night, it hit me like a Curt Schilling fastball to the kneecap: there’s a good possibility we won’t see anyone win the Stanley Cup this summer.

Quarrels over salary caps, revenue sharing and free agency will obliterate a large chunk of another major professional sport’s season – probably an entire season at this rate. As of Thursday, more than 100 games had been canceled as a result of the NHL lockout.

Wait, you caught me. I just called hockey a major professional sport. Okay, even a self-proclaimed hockey fanatic like myself can honestly admit that hockey has lost its once rightful status as a “major” American sport, but it still hurts to think about what could have been this season.

This was supposed to be the season the Atlanta Thrashers broke through and solidified their status as the NHL’s next great franchise. To be a great franchise, you need to have a star. Gretzky and the Oilers. Jordan and the Bulls. Jeter and the Yankees. Montana and the 49ers.

When – if – NHL teams finally get back on the ice, Thrashers winger Ilya Kovalchuk will be that next great NHL star.

Some people say Mike Vick is the best athlete in sports.

Humbug.

He’s not even the best athlete in Atlanta. Leave that distinction to Kovalchuk. No one can rip a slap shot at full speed like Kovalchuk can, and Thrashers head coach Bob Hartley has finally taught Kovalchuk the importance of playing good defense. Kovalchuk’s days of finishing the season -35 are gone. And did I mention he’s only 21-years-old?

The supporting cast is starting to shape up as well. Kari Lehtonen has the tools to become the next great shutdown goalie. Hockey fans know full-well what a healthy Dany Heatley can accomplish. The addition of Jaroslav Modry gives the Thrashers a top-tier defenseman. And Marc Savard is finally developing into the player the Thrashers envisioned him becoming years ago.

I understand this all means nothing to most of you, but I want you to be in the loop when the Thrashers raise the cup in the not-too-distant future. That is, if the Thrashers still exist.

One of the chilling effects of this lockout could be the termination of as many as eight NHL franchises. The Thrashers could be one of those eight.

I’ll be the first one to support the theory that terminating some of the teams would improve the NHL’s thin talent pool, but it will be a sad day if the Thrashers don’t make it out alive.

This season would have also been the last one before the arrival of Sydney Crosby, the best hockey player to come out of Canadian junior hockey since Gretzky. The NHL’s cellar-dwelling teams would have been in a race to the draft lottery for the chance to draft Crosby.

Gretzky himself conceded Crosby could be the one to break his scoring records. Excuse me, Mr. Gretzky? Those records are unbreakable.

Just in case you have never heard the greatest stat in sports, I’ll put an end to that right now. If you take away every goal Gretzky scored, 894 of them, and just count his career assists, 1,963 of them, then Gretzky would still be the NHL’s all time leading scorer. Gretzky seems to think Crosby can top that. Good luck, kid.

Anyway, it looks like there will be no 2004-2005 season, and some think there won’t be a 2005-2006 season either. If that should be the case, Crosby won’t receive LeBron James-like press heading into next summer’s NHL draft, and we won’t get to see Crosby take aim at Gretzky’s scoring records until the 2006-2007 season at the earliest.

There were other, smaller things to look forward to that we’ll miss. Alexander Ovechkin’s emergence as an NHL star. The fall of the Detroit Red Wings into mediocrity. The full-time return of the skating Penguin logo on the Penguins’ sweaters. And the always tear-inducing moment when the captain of the Stanley Cup championship team raises the Cup and takes a victory lap.

None of these things seem to matter, though. All that matters right now is salary caps, revenue sharing and free agency.

Mike Szwaja is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected]