•For the fifth year in a row, the Stanley Cup champion will probably come from the Eastern Conference. Travel will see to it, if talent doesn't. There'll be no inter-conference play until the Stanley Cup finals—no Toronto versus Montreal Canadien games, no Gretzky-led Kings versus Messier-led Rangers, no Eastern Conference team even playing out of its own time zone until one of them finds itself competing for the league championship. For the next five months the Devils, the Rangers and the New York Islanders will never have to take a plane ride of more than two hours' duration, except for the two times each team flies south to play the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Meanwhile, poor Detroit and Toronto, two of the best teams in the Western Conference, will expire, slowly and painfully, of terminal jet lag. The only times they'll play a road game that's in their time zone is when they play each other. Toronto's closest NHL neighbor, Buffalo, which is less than 100 miles away, but in the Eastern Conference, is not even on its schedule. "The travel for us is not good compared to the travel for clubs in the Eastern Conference," says Fletcher, trying to put the best face on a bad situation. "But there are only 24 road games, and the travel affects all teams in our conference equally. We won't be playing the other conference till the finals."
There is a benefit for the fans: The two teams that qualify for the Stanley Cup finals won't have faced each other all year, which may create heightened interest. On the other hand by the time the finals are played, it'll be summer. All the fans may have gone fishing by then.
The question of public interest in the wake of the lockout remains to be answered. There's little doubt that hockey fans in traditional NHL cities—Boston, Montreal, New York, etc.—will quickly forgive and forget, and that the arenas in those towns will be filled. But what about the new fans in the Sun Belt, so vital to the future of the league, where the sport was just beginning to take root? How soon will they return?
Another question: By postponing the start of the postseason a month, the NHL will now go head-to-head against the NBA playoffs. Will the NHL's television ratings, already minuscule, suffer a setback despite a new national TV deal that will bring some of the league's playoff games to Fox? That seems likely, further setting back the league's efforts to depict hockey as an up-and-coming sport.
Finally, what are the chances that this collective bargaining agreement, so painfully and grudgingly extracted in an 11th-hour deal that averted cancellation of the season, will lead to lasting labor peace? As it tries to build its fan base, the NHL can ill afford any further acrimonious work stoppages, but both sides have the right to reopen the six-year agreement after the 1997-98 season, and judging from Bettman's and Goodenow's expressions when the settlement was announced on Jan. 11, they will fight for the honor to do so.
Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest. It could be the official NHL film.