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Thursday, April 13, 2006
Updated: April 27, 9:56 PM ET
Remember the cost of the lockout

By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com

A year ago, there was darkness.

It seems amazing at times how little talk there is about that.

Yes, the NHL Players Association has had internal warfare, including the reaction to the elevation -- virtually by acclamation -- of Ted Saskin to the position of union boss following the, ahem, departure of Bob Goodenow.

Terry Frei writes that we should not take the past few NHL months for granted.

Former player Trent Klatt opined from his insurgent Web site. Chris Chelios was among the disaffected. The result -- if I follow this correctly -- was something like Neidermeyer from "Animal House" becoming an accountant and running a hermetically sealed ballot process to confirm Saskin's appointment.

Also, there has been considerable discussion over how much of their salaries the players will put in escrow, pending determination of league revenues, which reportedly involves the formula of microbrew prices, decibel levels of warm-up music, Mats Sundin's plus-minus and the age of the latest actress pictured with Sean Avery in Us Weekly.

Or something like that.

Other than that, though, it has sailed both under the radar, and the crossbar. We know it's going on, and though a few thought it necessary to be thorough and cover this as if it were significant in the overall picture, fact is, most of us don't care much. (Is that shameful to admit?)

We're back to hockey, the playoffs are on the horizon, and that's what really matters.

All that said, after a year of no NHL, after bitterness, intransigence, finger pointing, blaming, unrealized false hopes, disappointment and, finally, the agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement and the unfolding of the New NHL's first season, this might be the biggest upset of all:

It's almost as if nothing happened.

Players, sometimes with calculated posturing, but also with sincerity, usually still talk about "their" owners as if they're wonderful, benevolent people who had nothing to do with the shutdown of the league.

Or the players simply avoid the issue altogether.

By implication, of course, the notion is that some curmudgeonly dinosaurs among ownership, plus commissioner Gary Bettman and his cohorts, shoved all the owners into line -- the hard line. But even that doesn't seem to be a particularly bitter stand.

Behind raised hands, of course, the players will admit they didn't acknowledge the inevitable soon enough, or that they needed to stake out a position that they never, ever would abandon -- whatever that position was. (If we heard it once, we heard it a million times: "A hard salary cap is a non-starter." And now it's not only a starter, it never leaves the ice.)

So I don't know if this is high praise for the game and the folks in and around it, or whether this only underscores the stupidity of the circumstances that led to the lockout in the first place.

They've all moved on.

And maybe that can be expanded.

We've all moved on. Fans included. Most of the media included.

The phenomenon isn't unprecedented, of course. Work stoppages in the other major sports -- baseball, football and basketball -- all came with marathon, hand-wringing analyses about how long it would take for the scars to heal and the fans to return. Same thing with the darkness in the fall of 1994 for the NHL. And the bitterness lasted, what, 23 minutes?

But this was different.

This was the first completely lost season, one that gave major members of the U.S. media in major markets at least an excuse for paying the same amount of attention to the NHL as they had before. (Which is: None, because, regardless of the other rationalizations they advance, hockey intimidates them, so they come up with lame justifications about nobody caring except for those in the arenas, as they join the 6,000 fans at the NBA games.)

Yes, in the NHL, salaries have been downscaled, both in terms of the immediate rollbacks and the subsequent benchmarks. They're not holding cardboard signs on corners, the checks are coming in again and agents are getting their commissions. If there are grudges being held about the season of darkness, they aren't being discussed or belabored (so to speak). Especially after Goodenow's departure signaled confirmation that an "L" went up in the NHLPA record, the players seem to have been willing to shrug and say you win a few, you lose a few, and some nights the Zamboni blows a gasket.

Maybe that's indicative of an NHLPA membership attitude of going along for the ride, rather than deep commitment to the principles espoused by the Goodenow regime, but there's still something to be said for that.

After all these years, this shouldn't have surprised me. Hockey is a different animal, and that's what's great about it. But this ability to move on and accept the new partnership in the game and realize that it's not just hot air and platitudes, but economic reality, has been impressive.

Maybe this shouldn't be buried this far, but I admit I thought the only shot the NHL had of this happening was a clean slate, including not just Goodenow's departure, but also Bettman's. I thought he should resign after the settlement, even basking in the glow of getting the owners what they wanted and going out the door as a success.

Fact is, that was wrong.

The New NHL is far from perfect, and another strength of the game is that both its fans and media corps aren't sycophantic and argue about it all. Bettman will remain the lightning rod for those who ridiculously want to blame him for everything that is perceived to be wrong about the sport. But he not only was dynamic enough for his regime to get what it set out to get, he had overseen the implementation and -- most important of all -- the acceptance of the new system. This, at times, seems to have become the wingers fighting, then buying each other beers in the Pullman cars on the way to the second game in the barn-and-barn series.

And so, a year after the darkness, the NHL can get on with the best postseason in professional sports.

The only scars showing are the usual badges of honor.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."