Last night should have marked the opening of the 2004-05 NHL
regular season. But the NHL owners locked out the players on Sept.
15, delaying the beginning of the season indefinitely and leaving
Michigan hockey players to contemplate their future.

Ice Hockey
Michigan captain Eric Nystrom, a Calgary Flames draft pick in 2002, and his teammates have been keeping an eye on the current NHL labor impasse. (RYAN WEINER/Daily)
Ice Hockey
Former Michigan captain Brendan Morrison is the Vancouver Canucks representative to the NHL Players Association. (TONY DING/Daily)

When the curtain comes up on tomorrow’s home opener,
Michigan will be the best show in town for all those Hockeytown
fans seeking their fix of vulcanized rubber. The Wolverines
don’t boast the No. 1 ranking anymore, but with the Detroit
Red Wings locked out, senior captain Eric Nystrom and his teammates
think fans will enjoy the speed and excitement that the college
game provides.

“Hopefully, it’s a good thing for us in that more
fans will be coming out to college hockey this year,” senior
Brandon Rogers said. “And we will get more support from all
the fans who would be going to NHL games and don’t have
anything to do.”

The direct effect of the lockout on current Wolverines
won’t become apparent until least a year from now when they
attempt to crack a pro lineup. But with 14 players having been
drafted by NHL teams, the issue is weighing on some players’
minds.

“A lot of guys are trying to have good years so they can
make the jump to the NHL,” Nystrom said. “With no
league going on, it’s hard to know exactly where you
stand.”

Nystrom, who was drafted by the Calgary Flames in the first
round of the 2002 entry draft, thinks he will eventually make his
way into the Flames’ system, but the situation is much less
certain for the four seniors — Charlie Henderson, Nick
Martens, Reilly Olson and Eric Werner — that have gone
undrafted.

“From a lot of guys’ perspectives, hopefully, they
will figure it out at least by next year so that there are places
to play,” said Rogers, who was drafted by the Anaheim Mighty
Ducks in 2001.

The minor leagues provide some sense of comfort to the current
players. Former Michigan captain Jed Ortmeyer left Ann Arbor as a
free agent bound for the AHL team in Hartford, Conn. After two
months with the team, Ortmeyer found himself in New York playing in
the NHL.

“The path to the NHL is not always direct,” Michigan
coach Red Berenson said. “And I think that a lot of players
understand that they may have to play in the minors
anyway.”

Even with most of the Michigan players earmarked for the minors,
questions that are being addressed in the collective bargaining
agreement affect them greatly. Nystrom pointed to a tighter cap on
rookie salaries pushed by the owners and the possibility of a new
free agency system as issues with potential impact on current
Wolverines.

“We keep in contact with the teams that drafted us, but we
don’t really know where we stand contract-wise,”
Nystrom said.

Beyond the ramifications on their future playing careers, the
guys in Michigan’s locker room are fans. The lockout could
provide a brief benefit to the college game — including more
publicity and television coverage — but the long term effects
on the game seem hardly worth the short term boost.

“I sure think that college hockey has a window here and
should take advantage of it,” Alaska-Fairbanks coach Tavis
MacMillan said. “But for the good of the game, I really hope
that it ends soon — the sooner the better.”

Perhaps the most daunting question is whether there will be
enough fans around in the wake of a lockout to support the game of
hockey. Former Wolverine captain and current Vancouver Canucks
forward Brendan Morrison expressed concern that the fan base in the
United States might deteriorate as a result of the lockout.

“I think it could have a big impact on the game,”
said Morrison, who is the Canucks representative to the NHL players
association. “People will find other ways to spend their
money (in the United States). People will always come back in
Canada. It’s like a religion.”

The game will go on at Yost even without the NHL, but the
lockout will continue to be on the minds of the Wolverines and
Michigan fans until the situation is resolved.

“It’s a lose-lose situation for hockey. Its just
bad,” said Josh Langfeld, a former Wolverine and current
Ottawa Senator. “I don’t see anything good about
it.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *