Lockout damage will take a long time to fix

NEW YORK -- Never again.

OK, that’s a little naive. But let’s not see a labor dispute like this in this sport for at least a couple of decades.

The NHL needs labor peace for a long, long time, not just the 8-10 years this freshly minted tentative CBA will give it. This league, this sport, this industry, this brand -- it cannot afford yet another work stoppage after this deal expires. The cycle of labor battles must be stopped.

So while we’re all getting excited with the new season around the corner, let’s not forget the terrible damage caused by this ridiculously extended lockout.

The way this work stoppage played out was not acceptable. Not for a fourth time in 20 years.

Credit the Pittsburgh Penguins for their candor, telling it like it is Monday when owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux and CEO David Morehouse released a statement that began this way:

"We offer our apology. There is nothing we can say to explain or excuse what has happened over the past four months."

Talk about honest. And gutsy.

The NHL and NHL Players’ Association finally got it right, but it’s a dispute that lasted much longer than it should have.

What’s paramount now, though, is that the players and owners find a way to avoid this next time around. And the time after that.

Fans can’t be cheated again. They need to know that their emotional and financial investment in the game is not a fraud, not a wasteful and painful exercise.

Only labor peace brings that certitude to fans.

For that to happen, it will take years to build up trust between both sides. The mistrust between players and owners, between the union and league, is perhaps at an all-time low.

"I would like to believe that if larger groups of players, owners and executives were able to interact more often and contribute ideas to the game and the business, then there would be at least a little bit of trust built over time," star Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller told ESPN.com via email Monday. "We could invite a few journalists in there once in a while! Important interaction between players and the league shouldn't happen only on the occasion of important league business, like a collective bargaining agreement.

"The problem now is that I am not sure any player will ever forgive the league executives, let alone start to trust them. The league needs to reach out to the players after they take care of the fans and start to build some trust again. I think the way fans are treated entering this season will be a telling sign of how things can move forward. If the league acts appropriately, it will show at least an understanding that things are not OK and things have to get better in the NHL. Fans are pissed and a big part of me is happy to see that because these work stoppages can't go on anymore, or hockey suffers. That has been my biggest concern in all of this, despite what people may think about me or how they interpret what I have said about this lockout."

Time to heal, time to rebuild, time to grow. Time to give back to the fans, those who matter the most.

"I think that the length of the agreement solidifies the stability of the relationship with everyone," veteran Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, who last month raised eyebrows when he was quoted saying he was embarrassed for the game, told ESPN.com Monday. "Right now what we have to do, and unfortunately there is a business part of sport, but the most important part is right in front of us, and that’s the game itself. That’s what we all have to focus in on. We all learn from every experience we’re in. But the most important thing is the game itself. At times feelings got high during this, feelings got low, but right now it’s just all about the game."

What sets hockey apart from other sports, in my mind anyway, is its athletes. Hockey players are good guys, simply put. They play the game because they’ve dreamed all of their lives of a Stanley Cup. That’s the No. 1 reason they play. And that’s the most attractive asset the game has.

Yet another lockout makes people forget that after watching players and owners wage an ugly war over money.

"Us older guys who have been around a while, we recognize what the game has given us, which is a heck of a living and heck of a life," St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock told ESPN.com Monday. "There comes a time when you’re afraid for the game. The thing that is unique about hockey players is that they’re like the kid next door. They play the game for the right reason. They put everything on the line for two months to compete for the Cup when their salaries are finished. They compete for the right reasons. You never want to destroy that. It’s unique to our sport. Every spring is about that charm. We don’t ever want to see that get lost. That’s the fear about reading about a lockout every day, that becomes more dominant than the reasons why the boys really play hockey. Now we have to earn it all back."