Can we all agree we're really ticked at the NHL owners and players for the ridiculous greed-driven lockout that deprived us of wonderful hockey for the past three months?
Now, let's get over it.
Bring on the games.
We're lucky in this town. We'll get past the lockout lunacy a lot easier than they will in many NHL cities such as Phoenix, Miami and Dallas. A big part of that is Mario Lemieux. Penguins fans will be quick to forget that he, as one of the team's owners, signed off on the lockout. That's if they even held it against him in the first place. To those fans, Lemieux can do no wrong. The same people who screamed about public financing for PNC Park and Heinz Field sang a different song when it came time to pay for Consol Energy Center. "Give Mario what he wants!"
But there is another important reason the Penguins will attract their 255th consecutive sellout crowd when the team plays its first home game later this month. The hockey is terrific. No other city has Sidney Crosby, the world's best player, and Evgeni Malkin, the NHL's most valuable player a year ago. So what if the Penguins underachieved in the playoffs in April, losing miserably to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games? So what if Crosby and Malkin came up a bit small at the worst time? So what if the penalty-kill and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury were awful? The Penguins will be a favorite to win the Cup in 2013. Do you really want to miss that ride?
Penguins fans aren't just passionate. They are extremely bright. They understand we get to watch great hockey here because of another lockout, the one that wiped out the 2004-05 season. The Penguins were a dying franchise then. Interest in the team was way down. There were no plans for a new arena. Lemieux put the club up for sale and surely would have allowed it to leave.
But the new labor agreement, which featured a salary cap, gave the Penguins a chance to compete against the deeper-pocket organizations. Then, the Ping-Pong ball, against overwhelming odds, bounced their way, giving them the right to draft Crosby. Suddenly, everything else fell into place. Lemieux wasn't interested in selling anymore and took the team off the market. Consol Energy Center was built. The Penguins became competitive again. The franchise has been printing money ever since.
That's why Lemieux and the Penguins supported the latest lockout even though they would have been just fine without it. They understand the NHL is bigger than just its healthiest franchises and needs its weakest to thrive. That's also why those knowledgeable Penguins fans will be able to write off the lockout as a sad, but necessary part of making the overall league stronger. If it takes three dark months to produce 8-10 years of competitive hockey, so be it.
Hockey will start again at its best time of the season. Because of the abbreviated schedule, every game will be meaningful. It will be a rough grind for the players, who will play more games in fewer days than usual. Injuries will be plentiful and significant. The team that wins the Stanley Cup will be the one that best deals with the inevitable attrition.
But what a joy the hockey will be for us to watch. What's left of the regular season will be one long, unending push toward the playoffs. Again, because of the abbreviated schedule, the Penguins games, which figure to be exclusively within their division and conference, will be so much more intense. Can you imagine seeing the Penguins and Flyers play seven times between now and late April? The Penguins and New York Rangers seven times? The Penguins and New Jersey Devils seven times? It's going to be fabulous.
Some might try to tell you the Cup will be cheapened by the shortened season. Nonsense. Look at it this way. Will you stand and cheer if NHL commissioner Gary Bettman hands the trophy to Crosby to hoist in late June? Do you think Crosby will say no thanks and give it back because it wasn't a full season?
This is a day for celebration.
Don't be mad.
Hockey, wonderful hockey, is back.roncook
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.