The Canadian Press reports that an NHL collective agreement is only days away, with a frantic summer of ratification, education and player swapping to follow.
Over at TSN, hockey analyst Bob McKenzie agrees that the nightmare will soon be over. He also reveals the slogan for the NHL's post-lockout marketing blitz: "A Whole New Game." McKenzie outlines a slew of changes to back up the slogan: shootouts will end tie games, the two-line offside pass is "likely gone," goalies will wear smaller pads, etc.
But on a day-to-day basis, how different will this new game look? Maybe not so different at all.
First, let's acknowledge the obvious: the business of hockey will never be the same. A salary cap and a host of other major changes will redefine how teams go about filling their sweaters and how a winner is built. Some of us see a salary cap as little more than enforced mediocrity, penalizing managers who build great teams and bailing out those who don't know how to draft, develop or trade for talent. But whether you buy that argument or not, there is no denying that the cap system is a radical change to the NHL landscape.
But when Gary Bettman promises a whole new game, a supposedly healthier business is only part of the spectacle. What he is really talking about is the renewal of the NHL as an entertainment product: More thrills! More spills! More goals! A Gretzky in every rink! A chicken in every NHL pot!
Can the new NHL live up to the hype?
We can dismiss Bettman's utopian promise of a league where every team has a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup every season. Bad teams will still find ways to screw up, year after year. Threadbare scouting staffs will still make poor draft picks. Lousy general managers will still make lousy trades. Churlish owners will still blame "the system" or the lazy players or ungrateful fans who refuse to pay outlandish prices to see a bumbling, incompetent hockey team.
As for the promised rule changes - assuming the league actually goes ahead with them - their potential to change the world is questionable.
Smaller goalie equipment makes sense - those gargantuan pads had to be pruned at some point - but it won't open any floodgates. Today's goaltenders are the best in hockey history because they are better raised, better coached and more athletic than their predecessors. Shaving an inch off a blocker pad won't change that.
The shootout will be a hit with fans. But it's an add-on, an encore to a hockey game. It is unlikely to have much influence on the 65 minutes of play preceding it.
Fatter bluelines and a return to "tag-up" offsides? Useful tweaks with minimal impact on the flow of a game.
No-touch icing? A safety measure, nothing more.
Another "crackdown" on obstruction? Insert punchline here.
Maybe the "new game" campaign will total more than the sum of its parts; maybe it will be the rebirth of pro hockey. But it's just as likely that a 2006 NHL game won't look much different than it did in 2004. How will the league respond? By celebrating the game it has? Or by promising bigger nets, no more whistles, live nude girls and just about anything else to satisfy the evangelical reformers and television malcontents?