Paying the Piper
For the most part this season, it is as though the NHL seemed to simply get away with the potential effects of last year's lockout.
It was as though Katrina came, but left no destroyed homes and flooded communities in its wake.
The fans, to a large extent, did come back, and in most markets. The game was vastly improved, giving the sport a positive spin directly related to its on-ice product for the first time in years. Partway through the season, news began to surface that revenues might actually outstrip projections, which would mean the salary cap would increase substantially for next season.
Now, however, the NHL is finally going to have to deal with the real issue that was, along with the state of game, very much at the heart of the lockout and the league's business problems.
Three of the four conference finalists are set already with Buffalo, Carolina and Anaheim.
Edmonton, it appears, has very, very good chance of becoming the fourth.
That slate of teams, its fair to say, is not going to provide the NHL with an overwhelming opportunity to sell the sport.
With Edmonton, of course, Canada will be fine. But Canada's always fine.
In terms of the U.S., you couldn't have four markets of lesser impact than Buffalo, Raleigh, Edmonton and Orange County. Yes, all these teams are terrific, good to watch and run by capable managers and skilled coaches.
This is not about the quality or desirability of these teams.
This is about the fact the NHL has done a very, very poor job of selling its games and selling its players over the past 15 years, and so no American outside of Anaheim knows who Ryan Getzlaf is, and nobody outside of Tobacco Road could pick out Cam Ward from a police lineup.
In fact, the people on Tobacco Road probably couldn't. A lot of Canadians, to be fair, would struggle to identify Getzlaf and Ward, two native born sons who are among the bright young lights of the game.
With all the big markets - Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Toronto, Denver, Vancouver, Montreal - long eliminated from the post-season, this is where the NHL would start to see the results if they'd spent the past eight months aggressively pushing the players and personalities of all these other, smaller markets.
But they never did it. Indeed, the television deal with OLN contributed to this problem. Last week in Buffalo, a city that has been in the league for more than three decades, it was impossible to find a hotel or establishment where OLN games could be viewed on the off-nights of the Sabres-Senators series.
Then there were those ridiculous tai chi/soft porn/art of war "My NHL" commercials aired for most of the season showing pretend players pretending to play hockey and pretend fans pretending to be excited by it all.
Yeah, that was a hit. At least the NHL finally figured it out and started using the strength of the league - it's players - to sell the game on vastly improved "My Stanley Cup" spots in recent weeks. The NHL Players Association, meanwhile, has been too busy fighting its own civil war to make any impact at all within the new "partnership" with the league that was supposedly formed through the lockout.
But its all been too late, and the NHL is about to find out - again - how irrelevant it is to the overall North American sports landscape.
Without a clear, compelling strategy to market and sell the game better in the post-lockout era than was the case prior to the lockout, the opportunities that might be available to the league are, once more, going unmined.
And the cities left in the hunt for the Cup are going to be treated like a quartet of Hootersvilles.
This, of course, will be totally unfair to the Canes, Sabres, Ducks and Oilers, or the Sharks if they come back and win that series.
They don't deserve to be ignored. But south of the Canadian border and outside of their home cities, they surely are about to be.