When the hockey strike was in progress last year (or, more accurately, "lockout"), I told my hockey buddies that it was smart of the owners to do this at exactly this time, because there were so many older players who were making too much money to hang up the skates.
I predicted that if they cancelled the entire season last year (which they did) that many older players would try to get back into shape just before the 2005-2006 season and would find out a) they'd lost too much in the downtime and b) the new salary cap would mean less dollars available for them. I called it the owner's "secret plan", and whether they unwittingly did it or not, it's working.
In the last couple of days, Scott Stevens (41 years young, 22 years as a pro), Vinny Damphousse (18 NHL seasons), and James Patrick (21 years in the league), have all announced their retirements. They were all among the top eight active players in games played.
Still undecided about their plans are Mark Messier, Ron Francis and defenseman Al MacInnis -- who are first, second and sixth, respectively, in games played by active players. Without looking it up, I'd venture a guess that these six guys collectively made 18-22 million dollars last season...maybe more...and will be replaced by guys making the league minimum. My buddy Bill Dennis would call this capitalism at it's finest, and this time I'm not disagreeing with him. I don't blame the owners, and I don't blame veteran players for sticking around as long as they can when the money is good. With the new salary cap, however, veteran money isn't going to be what it was. Price of doin' business, I say.
Another aspect of the lockout was that I thought many of the European players, particularly those who weren't big stars, would find out they could make almost as much money staying home to play in premier Russian, Swedish, English, and German leagues, and that is coming to fruition as well, as Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings has just announced he's staying in Russia to play this year.
The end result is a younger league, cheaper on the owner's pocketbooks, too, and more opportunities for AHL players to move up, (Peoria is back at the AAA level this year, in the AHL) and more opportunities for guys who played in the ECHL last year (AA level, what the Rivermen were from 1996-2005) to move up to the better-paying AHL.
I'm looking forward to hockey's return this year, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the franchises that best prepared for the post-lockout scenario (Minnesota Wild, Tampa Bay Lightning) perform this year. We'll see if their strategy of going with young players before the lockout pays off this year. My guess is it will.