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Friday, January 17, 2014
Updated: January 19, 6:19 PM ET
Looking good, one year later

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

Somewhere in our closet is a T-shirt, Philadelphia Flyer orange, bearing Claude Giroux's likeness and the simple phrase: "Let's Go!"

The T-shirt was slung over the back of every seat at Wachovia Center a year ago to mark the return of hockey from a labor dispute that cost the NHL nearly half a season.

As we mark the one-year anniversary of the game's return, we are struck once again by the league's seemingly uncanny ability not just to survive its regular flirtation with the absurd when it comes to its labor relationship with the players, but to actually thrive in spite of the longstanding labor dysfunction.

A year later, all the rhetoric and bad blood and pontificating and threatening that emanated from both sides in the dispute seems almost surreal as the league has somehow managed to parlay that labor stoppage into unprecedented growth and prosperity.

"Let's Go!" indeed.

Since the NHL reopened its doors on Jan. 19, 2013, on the heels of the new 10-year agreement with the National Hockey League Players' Association, the league has managed to put to rest key ownership issues in Phoenix, Florida and New Jersey, sign a mammoth new television deal in Canada worth $5.2 billion (Canadian), hold a record-breaking Winter Classic game at Michigan Stadium and charge toward becoming a $4 billion business, with national revenues accounting for more than 20 percent of the pie, up almost four-fold since 2008.

Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted, in an interview this week, that he didn't even realize the anniversary of his league's return was upon us. But he did say that all of these elements are interconnected. The ownership situations don't get resolved without first producing a new economic system that saw the players' share of hockey-related revenues reduced from 57 percent to 50 percent and other modifications to the financial structure of the game, along with the promise of labor peace for a decade.

New ownership means, in theory, more stability league-wide, and that stability is attractive to sponsors and business partners, which helps explain the league's new 12-year television deal with Sportsnet in Canada that will be a boon to every NHL team and, by extension, the players.

"It's all about having the right building blocks and the right foundation in place," Bettman said.

If the question is whether all of these elements taking place so quickly after the end of the lockout has come as a surprise, the commissioner is unequivocal.

"The answer is no," Bettman said. "It was all part of the equation."

The commissioner, about to celebrate his 21st year at the helm of the league, has been criticized for taking fans' loyalty to the game for granted during recent labor disputes. And yet, Bettman has been proved right -- both in 2004-05, when an entire season was lost to a lockout -- and last season that fans will return and, more often than not, return in record numbers.

"We've had to deal with the experience of coming back [from a work stoppage], and in every instance we've come back strong," Bettman said. "In both cases, the last two times, we've come back as strong as you can be."

Since the start of this season, the NHL has either renewed, expanded or signed up for the first time six key corporate sponsors. Unique visits to the league's website, NHL.com, were up on a monthly basis 78 percent from October 2011 to October 2013, and the league's six new international websites have seen exponential growth. Through the end of December, the league is playing to just shy of 95 percent capacity in its 30 buildings, and that number should only increase with new owners in place in the previously identified troubled markets. Television ratings for the Winter Classic in Ann Arbor, Mich., broke records, with a combined audience in North America of more than 8.2 million. In the U.S., the game was the second-most watched hockey game in 39 years (the 2011 Winter Classic between Pittsburgh and Washington is first).

The league and its business partners continue to earn accolades and awards for marketing strategies. Even the longstanding acrimony between the players' association and the owners has been soothed by the league's financial success coming out of the lockout.

Bettman insists that, even though the two sides haven't been able to avoid a work stoppage during the last two efforts at forging a new collective bargaining agreement, the current stability within the NHLPA under the guidance of executive director Donald Fehr has made moving forward much easier.

"The process can be effected by the state of one or more of the parties; I'm trying to keep this non-argumentative," Bettman said. "This time the union appears to be more stable.

"What we have this time with Don is more stability than we've seen in the last decade and that's a good thing."

Flyers Shirt
Boy, did the NHL ever get going after the lockout was over.
Fehr is quick to point out that although the relationship between the two sides is often referred to as a "partnership," it isn't quite that given that, "We're not partners in this business," Fehr told ESPN.com this week. "That suggests joint control. They still run the business."

That said, the head of the players' union said he wasn't surprised how strongly the game has come back, given the product on the ice and that the stability of ownership and long-term broadcasts deals are all positives. If the past vis-a-vis the lockout has been easy to forget, the future appears to be marked by discussions of a very different nature than in the past. The joke at the recent board of governors' meetings in California was that it must be boring for Bettman, given that there were no fires to put out relative to ownership in Phoenix, Florida or New Jersey, no discussion of relocation or bankruptcy.

"The answer is, it's different," Bettman said. "And it's good because the focus is where it belongs. It's not on all these stories that are, as far as I'm concerned, distractions."

Instead, there are discussions about whether the league will expand -- the imbalance in the two conferences, with 16 teams jammed into the Eastern Conference and just 14 in the Western Conference, doesn't seem to be a viable plan long-term and does suggest that expansion is a greater likelihood than at any point in the last decade or so. That's something the players in general support, Fehr said -- more teams is always better -- but acknowledges that it's also important to decide whether filling an empty marketplace is best served by moving a less successful franchise than introducing a new one to the equation.

"So, we'll have to see," he said.

The NHL and the players must decide how to proceed with the Olympics, a decision that will become easier to come grips with, pending how things turn out next month in Sochi vis-a-vis some of the changes the two sides lobbied for heading into this Olympic experience.

Fehr has long been a proponent of trying to expand the game's reach into Europe and that won't change moving forward. The league and players are working, slowly but working nonetheless, on coming up with a master plan for the international calendar that will likely include a return of the World Cup of Hockey as early as the late summer of 2015.

The stability in key areas of the game allows for more focus to be spent on broadening the game's appeal, whether it's through grassroots programs around the globe or making use of technology to expand the game's access, the commissioner said.

The stability "gives us an opportunity to nurture and watch the game and grow it across all platforms," Bettman said. "The foundation isn't one cement mixer pouring concrete, it's lots of blocks that have to be put together."

Fehr believes that pro sports leagues where there is a salary cap will always have to deal with labor stoppages because owners will always use lockouts to try to squeeze more out of the players. But for the NHL, that's a long way in the distance.

In the meantime, Fehr hopes a series of committees established in the last CBA between the two sides "will continue to develop and mature," as it relates to keeping the game tracking forward. It doesn't mean the two sides will become best friends or anything warm and fuzzy like that, he said.

"It does mean that you have a professional day-by-day relationship," Fehr said.

Which, more than a year ago, seemed like a pipe dream.