Smiles. There were plenty of smiles.
The NHL’s opening weekend had everything: blowouts, fights, injuries, angst, and excitement; but throughout it were the smiles.
Players happy to play again. Coaches happy to go back to work. Arena workers happy to regain some income. And fans happy to cheer their team on the ice and not wait with baited breath for some labor news from a reporter standing on a New York City sidewalk.
The NHL went through its second lockout in eight years, and as talks between the League and the players’ union produced nothing but the desires to win a public relations battle, anger boiled from everyone affected by the lack of hockey.
But, as the NHL hashtag told us, #hockeyisback, and despite the 2013 season being three days old, it's already in full-swing. There's everything from Roberto Luongo trade rumors to Carlo Colaiacovo already being hurt. It's like nothing has changed.
Puck Daddy attended three games in three days at two arenas over the weekend. Here's the story from the NHL's first three days back.
Saturday – New Jersey Devils at New York Islanders, Nassau Coliseum
UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Hours before they were even allowed inside of the building, Islanders (and some Devils) fans were tailgating and played ball hockey in the parking lot of Nassau Coliseum. It was a perfect night for hockey, and despite it being mid-January, Mother Nature played along making it feel like it was late-March.
The Islanders opened the 2013 season with a 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils in front of a packed house and fans full of expectations, from high and low. It was the beginning of a two-year goodbye to the house that was once dubbed “Fort Neverlose” during their Stanley Cup dynasty in the 1980s. When the 2015-16 season comes along, the team will move 29 miles west to Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“Knowing the tradition and the history of the Islanders, I think how important this franchise is to the NHL and to the community here," said Islanders captain John Tavares. "We’re moving a little bit down the road, but we’re fortunate that we’re staying in the Long Island-area.
“Now a lot of those questions we don’t have to answer anymore.”
Despite the loss, the 16,170 filed out of the Coliseum and into their cars home. On their way out, as they were stuck in traffic on Hempstead Turnpike just outside of the arena parking lot, they honked “Let’s go Islanders”, a post-game tradition win or lose. The Islanders haven't won a home opener since 2007.
There are only two more remaining at Nassau Coliseum. The tailgating experience won't be the same once the Islanders move to Brooklyn. But after years of wondering about where there team's future would be, fans and players can assured knowing they'll be staying in New York. Ball hockey and tailgating will eventually become straphanging and bar hopping.
Sunday – Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers, Madison Square Garden
NEW YORK, N.Y. -- Chalk. It’s what the bars around Madison Square Garden used to write out their “Hockey is Back” (and NFL championship Sunday) drink specials on the day that the Rangers played their home opener versus the Penguins. Chalk could also be used to describe the two Atlantic Division heavyweights who began the season as the top two Stanley Cup favorites.
The Rangers were coming off a 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins the night before, while the Penguins started off defeating the Philadelphia Flyers by the same score. After just a week of training camp, both teams were far from they want to be. But that’s to be expected given the situation. Whether you’re an “elite” team or one looking forward to choosing between Nathan McKinnon and Seth Jones in June, the hockey itself will not be perfect for a few weeks.
“It’s going to take time,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby before facing the Rangers. “I liked our mindset last game. There are certain things that just take time as much as you practice and prepare, you need to do it in games. If we keep doing those things we’re going to see an improvement.”
So far, so good for the Penguins. Their 6-3 win over the Rangers turned a Madison Square Garden crowd that was electric during pre-game introduction – and even crazier after the Arron Asham-Tanner Glass fight off of the opening faceoff – into a song of boo birds, dissatisfied with the home team’s performance.
One favorite is now 2-0, while the the other is 0-2. The standings currently lie written in chalk. Over the next 46 games there will be an abundance of change. A bad start certainly doesn't help your team during a short season, but it also won't force you to begin looking at the Draft. The 1994-95 Devils sat ninth in the Eastern Conference with a 8-10-4 record through 22 games. They would go on to win their first Cup that year. Looking up and down the Rangers roster, they'll probably be OK.
Monday – Tampa Bay Lightning at New York Islanders, Nassau Coliseum
UNIONDALE, N.Y. – From the beautiful weather that hit Long Island two days ago, things turned cold. Temperatures from the high 40s dipped into the 20s on Sunday and ended with the area covered in snow and ice. The same could be said for the change in temperature of fan emotions between June until mid-fall, when NHL talk went from the Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup celebration to collective bargaining agreements. It was a lockout that everyone saw coming, but it still didn’t make it any easier when Oct. 11 rolled around and what was supposed to be Opening Night 2012 became just another Thursday.
Jessica Zeitlin, from Manhattan, typically attends 10-15 Islanders games a season. As a long-time fan, she was supportive of the players during the lockout, but admits, “I didn’t really feel bad for anybody.”
Hockey fans just wanted their game their game back. It didn't matter who won and who lost.
The NHL and its teams have begun the mending process with fans. NHL Center Ice and GameCenter Live were heavily discounted; teams were giving everything away from free tickets to free beer; and while some fans threatened to stay away, looking at attendance numbers from over the weekend, they certainly didn’t do so on opening weekend.
While the turnstiles turned, what kind of affect will a second lockout in eight years have on a fans’ emotions?
“I think it puts a more politics into the sport, but I think that happens when there’s a lockout,” Zeitlin said. “Then you wait a year or two and everybody forgets about it. It takes a little bit of the fun out of the game, but it’ll come back again soon.”
Tom Karn, an Isles fan from West Babylon, is happy that hockey is back, but knows it's the fans are the ones who lose out during work stoppages.
“I understood both sides of the negotiations, said Karn. “But at the end of the day, the fans are the only group whose wants and needs are ignored without benefit. I'm just glad it didn't last all season.”
A 48-game schedule is just fine for hockey fans. Many prefer a shorter schedule to begin with; but to lose an entire season for the second time in less than a decade would have been incredibly damaging. But after 113 days of darkness, hockey fans are ecstatic that the lights are now back on at their local rink.
“I can't say that I'm not disappointed, but being a fan for so long, I was over it by Opening Night," said Karn. "I'm just glad I don't have to try and like basketball anymore."
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy