Thank goodness for a long hockey season

Riley Nash of the Carolina Hurricanes defends against

Riley Nash of the Carolina Hurricanes defends against Josh Bailey of the Islanders during the third period at Nassau Coliseum. (Oct. 19, 2013) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

This was not the Islanders' best night. It was one of those games that can happen early in a hockey season, when a team still is trying to figure out which way to go. They have seen worse. At least this year, there is a hockey season.

The 4-3 loss Saturday night to the Hurricanes at the Coliseum, pockmarked by a concussion to vital defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, still was a world removed from Oct. 19, 2012. That was when the NHL canceled all games through Nov. 1, making a full season very unlikely and a non-season a distinct possibility. A year later, the only good thing to say about it is thank goodness that was a year ago.

A year ago, Josh Bailey was working out with the Oshawa Generals junior team. "It made me feel I was still part of the game," he said. "The tough thing was just the not-knowing. It seemed like they would put it back two weeks at a time. You'd find out and say, 'OK, that's another two weeks.' The not knowing made it go by real slow."

Thinking back 12 months is enough to make a hockey person wince. "I was probably going to Party City to pick up my Halloween costume," Kyle Okposo said. "Geez, it's so nice to be playing and not have to worry about that stuff. You can't take it for granted."

Here is the lesson from the lockout, one year later: Nobody should take hockey for granted. It is a terrific sport, with a unique blend of speed, skill, flow and intense hitting. Obviously, the sport's following is not nearly as wide as that of the National Football League, but hockey's fandom is really deep. People who come to the games or watch them on TV don't need a point spread or an office pool to keep them interested. They love hockey's blend of speed, skill, flow and hitting. They embrace the traditions and the rivalries. They respect the unwritten rules.

So it was good for all concerned that last season wasn't scrapped altogether. The Islanders benefited as much as anyone from the settlement in January. Young players developed, the fan base became energized and Long Island got a taste of the postseason again.

In retrospect, the lockout actually opened some doors. "I was in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, probably preparing for a game against the Binghamton Senators or someone," Islanders defenseman Brian Strait said. "It's a surreal feeling, to think that only a year ago, life was so different." He believes that being a Penguins minor-leaguer, staying active, helped him when the NHL season began and the Islanders claimed him on waivers.

Colin McDonald, a solid Islanders forward now, called it a blessing in disguise that Islanders coach Jack Capuano, with time on his hands, got to watch him regularly last fall in Bridgeport. "Instead of showing up at training camp and having just three or four games to prove myself, I had 35 games where the coaches could get to know me, on and off the ice," he said.

But last October was mostly a cold, dark month. Cal Clutterbuck, then a member of the Wild, was one of 30 Minnesota-based pros who gathered to skate for extended summer workouts. "Normally, you ramp it up for three months and you're ready. The thing that was most difficult with this was you had no idea what the end date was," the new Islanders forward said.

Matt Martin remembers practicing with the University of Windsor squad. "I wasn't doing much, that's for sure. My friends were at school or at work and I was home," he said. "It was hard because you'd go through the lulls, thinking, 'Why am I going to the rink every day and practicing?' It seemed like there was no real future. It felt like you were pushing for no real goal, and that was difficult, but at the same time you had to be ready."

So the whole team didn't seem ready Saturday night. It was only one game. It's a long season, thank goodness.