Mark Twain never endured a National Hockey League lockout.
He never waited while a professional hockey season was cut short or altogether canceled. He never weighed the merits of a salary cap, players’ pension fund or any of the other things that confounded NHL owners and players for the past four months.
Yet more than a century ago one of the United States’ great authors, in a letter to a peer, might have summarized the best way for the Nashville Predators and 29 other franchises to approach things as they prepare to put behind them the league’s latest work stoppage.
“All you need in life is ignorance and confidence,” Twain wrote, “then success is sure.”
Not every team will succeed in the abbreviated season that opens later this week. As usual, only 16 of the NHL’s 30 franchises will make the playoffs, and only one will hoist the Stanley Cup.
Yet for right now, a week after the sides resolved their differences to the point that they could get back to work, amid the opening days of hurried training camps that were scheduled to start four months earlier, Twain’s take is a good place to start.
Ignorance? No one is quite sure what will happen, given the various ways players bided their time during the lockout, not to mention the far-reaching locales at which they did so. Likewise, the short season presents an unfamiliar challenge for those who typically have nearly twice as many games to navigate.
Confidence? It’s part of the ritual in any sport that before the first games are played, every team can find some reason to believe, if it so chooses. In the case of the Predators, it is continuity — in their coaches and in their personnel. The members of the local franchise don’t need time to get to know one another or what is expected of them, and that, they reason, gives them an edge.
“I think in a shortened season like this one a lot of things probably favor us, in that we haven’t made many changes, our coaching staff is the same,” Nashville general manager David Poile said. “I don’t think we’ll need a lot of time to adapt to each other.”
In addition to that, history is on the Predators’ side.
The last time NHL owners locked out their players they wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. Nashville emerged from that and made the playoffs six times in seven seasons, a level of consistency few teams matched over that same period.
In fact, once the league did get back to business, the Predators won their first eight games — still the franchise’s longest win streak — and 18 of the first 25. Of those seven defeats, only four were in regulation. The coaching staff was the same as the previous season, as were many of the players, with one notable exception: forward Paul Kariya who signed as a free agent shortly after the lockout ended.
Similarly, Nashville’s current coaching staff is the same one it had last season — two of the three navigated the last lockout as well — and the roster is largely unchanged from the end of last season.
“I think our team is in good shape because we’re pretty much the same,” center Mike Fisher said. “We played together last year. We lost a few guys, but we pretty much know our team. It’s not like we’re trying to add a lot of young guys who are going to have to fit in and learn. We’re pretty much the same, so we should be in good shape.”
The Predators were not around in 1994-95, which was the last time a lockout was resolved in time to play a 48-game schedule. Whatever changes were made to the league’s business model did little to immediately alter the state of competition at that time.
Of the 16 teams that made the playoffs in 1993-94, 14 of them, including all eight in the Western Conference, were back in Stanley Cup contention following the shortened season. The two newcomers were the Quebec Nordiques and Philadelphia Flyers, both of whom started to reap the benefits of a blockbuster deal involving Eric Lindros a couple years earlier. Lindros, with Philadelphia, won the Hart Trophy (most valuable player) following the 1994-95 season, and Peter Forsberg, one of several prospects the Flyers traded to get Lindros, won the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) in his first NHL season.
Nashville did not make any big trades in advance of this season, but it did reach the second round of the 2012 playoffs. It also signed goalie Pekka Rinne and defenseman Shea Weber to the two biggest contracts in franchise history, which allowed them to retain the bulk of their star power.
Weber was among the Predators who spent the bulk of the down time in Middle Tennessee and stayed in shape with informal workouts on their own. Rinne was one who signed with a European club to stay sharp and competitive.
All of them must blend together and play at an NHL pace quickly.
“Obviously, we’ve got great goaltending with [Rinne],” Weber said. “We’ve got solid defense, and I think we’ve guys that can score. I think that’s everything you want in a team. It’s going to be a short season, so we have to be ready to go right away. … Obviously, this week is going to be a big one, getting everyone back in here and try to get a good start. I think whoever gets a good start is going to have a big advantage.”
So it is that the Predators have any number of reasons for confidence as they approach this season, which nonetheless offers so much uncertainty.
“It’s going to be wild and crazy. …” coach Barry Trotz said. “It’s going to be so unpredictable. It’s going to be a wild ride. At times we’re going to look very organized. At times we’re going to look disorganized. … I think the intensity and the focus of every team will be really strong, but at the same time I think it’s a little bit of a test of character, a test of will and a test of detail. …
“It is going to be fun. The fans are going to have a blast. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be a grind. But at the same time I think it’s going to be a real fun ride for everybody.”
Given that there were times it looked like there might not be a season at all, that kind of season would certainly be deemed a success.