What We Cannot Save in a Lost Season
Even if it’s not clear for a while yet, we’ve already lost a lot
In 2004, we lost a whole season. That was and remains the most shameful part of Gary Bettman’s tenure as commissioner, where he convinced the owners of the need to establish a salary cap by whatever means necessary after the perceived failures of the 1994 lockout, and did so. Hockey was saved, according to the owners. Hockey was changed, for everyone.
The rule changes were largely good (asinine trapezoid aside). More goals, greater emphasis on skill, and more dynamic play just in time for Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and a whole host of the next generation. It remains poetic, to me, that Mario Lemieux still played on that Penguins team after the lockout, if only for a bit. A season had been lost, but the game had been a bit reformed. The hand strikes, but gives a flower.
So, too, will things change after this prolonged absence of hockey. How could they not? If nothing else happens, some players will see the sun set on what is already the twilight of their careers in a most ignominious fashion. If you remember nothing else about that 2004 lockout, remember this: it robbed us of one of the last years of Mike Modano’s prime, one of the years of Marty Turco’s peak, and a priceless year in the careers of Jere Lehtinen, Sergei Zubov, and Brenden Morrow. Time is invaluable, always. No rule change, no league restructuring, is ever worth a year of no hockey.
But we’re nearing a full month without hockey, and probably much longer, and it’s the right call, this time. It’s been so hard, cooped up, having no new sporting events to look forward to. The hockey season overlaps nicely with the EPL season, and this year especially had been a pleasant rhythm of games, practices, crazy news, and wonder. And now, when I most acutely feel the need for live sports and the concomitant community, they are gone.
It’s been hard, because life is so hard right now. Sports are gratuitous, but they can also be a most necessary balm in the darkest of times. The closest analog I can think of is back on 9/11, when sports were canceled for a couple of days or so. It was weird, even haunting. But there’s a massive difference between an absence borne of decorum and abstinence due to mortal peril. It’s about control. We do not know when the danger will abate, not until it does. We are at the mercy of a merciless foe, and it is terrifying, infuriating, and many other things.
But we can lament forever. Today, I wanted to reflect on the little things that we might not realize we lose when games, and even seasons, are lost. Baseball’s 1994 strike had its own version of this, with many players like Ken Griffey Jr. and Jeff Bagwell on world-beating home-run tears that were never realized, and Tony Gwyn scaring .400 like no one else would ever do again. It was a tragic loss, as sports go.
Hockey, with two half-seasons and one full lockout in the last 26 years, welcomes tragedy like no one else. The 1994-95 and 2012-13 lockouts were shorter, but still costly. That 2013 48-gamer was the last “full” season of Peak Kari Lehtonen, but it’s hard to lament that too much, given the artificial joy I still remember feeling at my kitchen table when they announced that hockey would return...for a shortened season. And, for some reason, because I realized that the lockout had given New Acquisition Derek Roy time to recover from shoulder surgery. Roy would not be a huge contributor for Dallas, but he would net Kevin Connauton and Philippe Desrosiers, of whom Connauton carved out an NHL career for himself, albeit in other towns. Hey, 300+ games in the NHL is a heck of an accomplishment.
Anyway, that 2013 season was the only season in Dallas Stars history (that I can recall, anyway) in which the team actively planned to flip short-term assets in the interests of rebuilding. It was a masterstroke by Joe Nieuwendyk, flipping Steve Ott (check out the DBD cameo in that piece by Stephen Meserve, by the way) and the burdensome contract of Adam Pardy for a movable asset.
The 1994-95 lockout was more ill-timed, coming in just the season season of Dallas Stars hockey, but it was perhaps as useful as it was ever going to be, with the Stars flipping Neal Broten (you may have heard of him) for Corey Millen (you may not have have heard of him). Broten would win a cup in New Jersey, but let’s not forget that Millen was included in the Jarome Iginla trade that brought in Joe Nieuwendyk, who would both win the Conn Smythe Trophy in the Stars’ only franchise Stanley Cup (so far) and eventually make the JaromirJagr trade that brought in the first-round pick used for Jason Dickinson. (Hot tip: if you ever want to make a really compact connection between the 1980 North Stars and the 2020 Stars, the Dickinson-Nieuwendyk-Broten combo is the way to go.)
Back in 2013, on a similar emotional level to Broten’s departure, Brenden Morrow was also moved, precipitating the appointment of Jamie Benn as the next captain (who also arrived late on the scene that year after waiting to be signed to an extension as an RFA). That was also the year of Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr. It was a weird season that the Stars capitalized on as much as they were in position to do, for a team that badly needed even a short-notice rebuild. There is something weird about how both partial seasons resulted in the trade of a franchise captain, while also precipitating a more successful period over the next half-decade (though one was much moreso, of course).
But we’re not here to keep about what we had, but what we might be missing out on. Thankfully, the Stars didn’t make any deadline deals this year, so they don’t stand to get shorted massively, should the Cup not be played for this year. I also don’t think there’s any danger of the Stars trading their captain. And heck, if you wanna be cynical, arbitration is going to be a bit easier for players like Hintz, Heiskanen, and Gurianov what with the abbreviated season and the systemic depression of traditional stats. Normally, I would unabashedly root for the players to all make tons of money, but thanks to the salary cap, there is this awful part of me that knows the team benefits, sickeningly, from players being underpaid. I fight against this instinct, I really do; but we root for branded pajamas, on some level, so we’ll see if the lower cap number next year combines with the statistical malfeasance wrought by tragedy to produce a slightly more favorable chance of success for this team. Sports are not always great.
This lost season, in all reality, is going to be a massive waste of opportunity for Dallas, just as some folks have been fearing all year long. The best goaltending you could ask for, the rising stars of Heiskanen, Hintz, and Gurianov, and the vestigial primes of Seguin and Benn amounted to a Stars team clinging desperately to a slim lead for 3rd in the division and a +3 goal differential with 13 games left in their season. It felt like squandering, always. Now it just feels like a lot of wasted anguish, a lot of misplaced angst. The skeptic would have said, “Don’t bother, this team won’t do anything anyway.” And it turns out that they might have been right, if for very different reasons.
So if we don’t see another game this season, we will miss out on seeing whether Denis Gurianov can manage the remarkable trick of rising from the ashes of a first-round draft debacle to lead his team in goal-scoring while being perpetually underappreciated by his impromptu head coach. It’s not often someone can both convert legions of skeptics while also failing to earn the trust of the one person paid exorbitantly to evaluate his performance.
We will miss out on Anton Khudobin and Ben Bishop splitting the vote to negate whatever Vezina love Dallas goalies are capable of getting these days. If irony is ever the right word—much like “biweekly,” it’s almost grown useless due to conflation—then it is exceedingly ironic that a system built around asking its goaltenders to be as perfect as possible from night to night might be the biggest reason its goalies will never get individual accolades. Also, “wins.” Mostly those, probably. Great voting, GMs. Just great jobs by all of you, as always.
If this season is over, we’ll miss out on seeing whether John Klingberg ever sorted himself out. I don’t think anything in this season matters to me more than this. To have Klingberg so quickly relegated from his former position as the anchor of the defense was jarring. Klingberg was playing the worst hockey of his NHL career (outside of some stretches in 2016-17) this season, and I never could quite understand why. It’s easy to blame the system, or a wounded ego, or many other things. But John Klingberg’s arrival late in 2014 was a seminal moment, and it just seems wrong that this season happened the way it did. He’s better than that, but we probably won’t get to see whether he could remind us just how much better, this year.
Alex Radulov suffered a healthy scratch again this year, himself undergoing the ignoble fate of all aging stars who get branded with the “enigma” symbol. We likely won’t get to see whether he was saving something for the playoffs, or the fight to remain in them.
Corey Perry was brought in specifically for his Playoff-y Veteranicity, purportedly. Joe Pavelski’s contract was always going to be banking on the first part being the best. Andrej Sekera was clinging to a spot in the lineup, but he and Roman Polak have no guarantees that more hockey awaits them whenever the next season arrives.
An abrupt end to the season leaves us struggling to grasp for memories and meaning, and it’s hard to choose much beyond the Winter Classic and Stephen Johns’s glorious return to hockey. Those moments are good, and will remain so. But the build up to the playoffs—which would have already started—and the pure energy of high stakes hockey, that arena where all the season’s narratives finally get cashed in for the next level of ecstasy? Gone. It’s all just...gone.
Even if the playoffs do happen (and the NHL is hell-bent on doing so), it will feel a lot more like the World Cup of Hockey than the fulfillment of destiny, I suspect. We all buy into what each season offers, and this unexpected severance just wrecks the illusion, irrevocably. Hockey will feel hollow, even when it comes back with fanfare and promises of symbolic unity and restoration. It’s like when you see that ex you’re still on good terms with after they marry someone else. You’re not angry, and you might even be glad for them. But you can’t enjoy it fully, because on some level, you pictured this happening differently, for them and for you, at one point. Redirected joy isn’t for naught, but it’s never the same after the first dream gets shattered, you know?
I hope hockey comes back as soon as it’s prudent to do so. On some level, I need it more than ever. But that dependency has also re-framed my love for it, made me more wary of what I actual get out of it. If this arbitrary thing is so unimportant, is my vicarious joy more delusion than anything else? Is my relationship with hockey like Fyodor Pavlovich’s with the bottle? Just a way to pretend I’m not weighed down with guilt for abdicating my greater responsibilities?
This is all self-indulgent tripe, though. Hockey is as good as any game can be, and as flawed as the humans who play it. The good in hockey feels so good, in part, because of how much disappointment and failure inhabit its corners. Goals are good because they are rare. Victories are wonderful because they might not have been. Games are necessary because they allow us to struggle, even vicariously, when we aren’t able to fight the more critical battles.
Now we are engaged in a great battle against everything, and nothing. We have lost control, even vicariously. Hockey’s return won’t solve anything, but it will signal the return of something else good. Vicarious struggles aren’t meaningless, even if they don’t change anything. The fact that the sparring can happen means we can once again start thinking about fighting the real battles, getting back into the arena with each other again.
This might be the last we see of Mattias Janmark in Victory Green. I could write another 2,000 words on how Janmark is a microcosm of the Stars during his entire tenure—if only all of us could have skipped that 2016-17 season like he did! But all we really can do right now is wonder and reflect. Janmark might still get to play a part in the Stars’ final fortunes this season, however they unfold. But he, like all of us, is stuck waiting to see whether he’ll get to redeem the frustrating struggles of the past year. Redemption is beautiful but never guaranteed. And right now, it would be really nice to have a guarantee of something good.