Instead, like the NFL in 2011 and the NBA last season, the NHL is mired in a labor dispute, with the owners locking out the players and — so far — wiping out more than two months of the season.
In question-and-answer form, here's a look at where things stand:
Q: WHAT HAS BEEN LOST SO FAR?
A: Including Friday's round of cancellations of all games through Dec. 14, there have been 423 games wiped out — including the New Year's Day Winter Classic — along with January's All-Star Weekend slated for Columbus, Ohio. More than one-third of the regular season has been removed from the calendar.
Q: HOW DID THINGS GET TO THIS POINT?
A: The collective bargaining agreement between owners and the players' association, that was in effect since the last lockout ended in 2005, expired on Sept. 16. Because a new deal wasn't in place then, the NHL locked out the players and said the new season wouldn't begin without an agreement. So far, the sides have been unable to find a solution on issues such as the division of revenue, free-agency rights and salary arbitration. The lockout entered its 70th day on Saturday.
Q: IS THIS THE FIRST TIME HOCKEY HAS HAD SUCH PROBLEMS?
A: No. Since Gary Bettman became NHL commissioner in 1993, the league has had three lockouts that greatly affected seasons. The first in 1994-95 forced that regular season to be shortened to only 48 games per team — instead of 82 — after a deal was reached in January. The entire 2004-05 season was canceled, marking the first time a major North American professional sports league lost a full campaign to a labor dispute. The main issue then was the owners' insistence on obtaining a salary cap for the first time. It wasn't until after the season was canceled that players agreed to the cap.
Q: ARE THERE ANY MAJOR PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES SUCH AS A SALARY CAP IN DISPUTE NOW?
A: No. Things are much more straightforward this time, but the sides can't agree on how to split up hockey-related revenue that reached a record $3.3 billion last season. This week, the union made an offer that was based on a framework the NHL had given, which included a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue and a $393 million in a "make-whole" provision for players, who earned 57 percent of revenues in the collective bargaining agreement that expired in September. Because of that figure, guaranteed contracts would lift the players' share over 50 percent at the start of a new deal. The NHL offered $211 million as a "make-whole" provision in an offer last month that took into account a full 82-game-per-team schedule. Players previously proposed they receive a guaranteed amount of revenue each year. Management wants a seven-year deal, which the union says is too long because fewer than half the current players will be active by the last season. NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said the sides were $182 million apart in a five-year deal, which comes to $1.2 million annually for each of the 30 teams. Commissioner Gary Bettman said the sides are much farther apart. Management wants to increase eligibility for free agency to 28 years of age or eight seasons of NHL service, up from 27 years or seven seasons. The owners also proposed adding a year of service for salary arbitration eligibility, hiking it from 1-4 to 2-5 years of service, depending on the age a player initially signs.
Q: ARE THE SIDES STILL TALKING?
A: After a week in which the sides got together multiple times over four consecutive days, they had an eight-day break before reconvening on Monday. They met again for about 2 1-2 hours on Wednesday before talks broke off. Negotiators spoke by phone on Friday before the NHL made its latest round of game cancellations and again on Saturday. Donald Fehr said there was chance they would speak again on Sunday or Monday.
Q: WHY HAS THERE BEEN SO MUCH LABOR UNREST IN AMERICA'S MAJOR SPORTS?
A: While the issues have varied somewhat among sports, it is notable that Major League Baseball — the only one among the four major sports without a salary cap — also was the only one among that didn't have a lockout. Some believe the absence of a salary cap gave baseball negotiators more wiggle room to bargain. Donald Fehr was the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1983-09 before taking a similar position with the NHL Players' Association in December 2010 after a brief stint as a union adviser.
Q: WILL THERE BE HOCKEY THIS SEASON?
A: As more time is lost, additional games are canceled and the rhetoric on both sides increases, optimism wanes that a deal will be reached in time for the season to get going. History says that a deal can be made as late as January that will assure a season. While an 82-game-per-team schedule no longer is possible, a schedule of 60 games or 48 again can be salvaged. If so, those games will likely be limited to intra-conference matchups to cut down on travel and allow for more games to be crammed in.