Lockout robbed fans of chance to say good-bye

You want another reason that the NHL's lockout was the worst thing to happen to sports since Terrell Owens developed his own line of motivational-speaking tapes? Try this: It just killed nearly a century's worth of hockey greatness.

Oh, that's not the company line, at least not exactly. On the surface, most people would probably look at the retirements of Ron Francis, Mark Messier, Scott Stevens and Al MacInnis and say, "Old school. It was time."

No argument there -- on the surface. On the surface, these are four hockey dinosaurs coming to a well-earned rest after years of classic service. Between Francis, Messier, Stevens and MacInnis are a dozen Stanley Cup championships, some of the most prolific scoring totals in NHL history and defensive excellence that essentially set the standard for a generation to meet.

Good stuff. And yet not one of these four guys felt fully ready to leave the sport.

Until the lockout, that is.

Is there a pattern here? Alas, there is, and it forms a pockmarked trail that leads directly to the league's disastrous turn of last season, when it wasted a year in a dispute that was ultimately futile -- no historic gains or retrenchments on the labor front, no heroes, no breakthroughs, nothin'.

What the time away from the ice did, however, was accelerate the career clocks of these four men. And every one of them says exactly as much.

In his going-away memo, Francis noted that the labor dispute was "pretty much the writing on the wall" that his career couldn't last another competitive season Messier said his desire to continue playing is actually stronger today than it was a year ago, when the lockout began, but he's also now 44; the year he lost on the elite athlete's body clock was that crucial.

Stevens was on his way back from a concussion that cost him half the 2003-04 season, but his lockout-forced year away "gave me a taste of what it's like to be retired," and that was evidently enough. And MacInnis, after spending nearly a year returning to form after suffering a detached retina in October of 2003, was ready to go for the '04-05 season -- but sitting out yet another season proved to be the end for him, too.

"I just felt that after not playing competitively for two years that I could not reach that level of play again," MacInnis said. "It was strictly time."

It's an out-and-out disaster, is what it is -- and not because the NHL cannot withstand the loss of players like Francis, Messier, Stevens and MacInnis from its talent pool. The league has plenty of talent. What it doesn't have is an identity, and it just bled a few more precious drops with the loss of these players.

Nobody plays forever, and there's a solid case to be made that each of these old warhorses was too far on the downside of his career for another year to have made any difference. But what any league coming out of a deep freeze longs for is that sense of normalcy to sell to fans: "We're back on track. See? There's Mess skating around."

Not even the excitement over a prospect like Sidney Crosby can create that kind of reassurance to the potential customers, and the NHL right now, as it begins its preseason, just cannot offer it. It is a league without a face, and that's a tough sell in the United States particularly.

You'd love to believe that neither the owners nor the players came away from this lockout under the illusion that anything good came of it, because nothing did. It's a lead weight tied to a sport that generally runs uphill in the U.S. anyway. In the end, sports are options for most fans in the world, discretionary income that could just as easily flow in some other direction. It's the emotional tie that keeps the solid sports fan coming back.

Not to get overly weepy about it, but a lot of great emotion just went out of the NHL in the form of Francis, Messier, Stevens and MacInnis. It's not the same as saying one more year on the ice would have been some grand closing argument for the sweeping beauty of their careers; it's just that it would have been fun to watch. And that, when you get right down to it, sums up the entire business proposition.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.