The Great Myth of the 1994-95 Lockout

It’s a great myth that the 1994-95 lockout inflicted lasting damage on the careers of many veteran NHL stars.

After 1993-94, the league suffered a well-documented drop in scoring that would continue into the next decade, skewing the lockout season’s stats. And while there certainly may have been some attrition because of 1994-95’s 48-game dash, ranging from stars who soon faded such as Brian Bellows, Sergei Makarov, Thomas Steen, and Steve Larmer, to warriors who eventually broke down like Cam Neely and Al Iafrate, it’s just as likely that injuries and age were the natural cause of their professional deaths.

1994-95 Be a Player Autograph #108 Wayne Gretzky
1994-95 Be a Player Autograph #108 Wayne Gretzky
Then-King Wayne Gretzky and Maple Leaf Doug Gilmour are the most commonly cited examples of the lockout’s catastrophic aftermath. For Gilmour, the physical and statistical decline was obvious. However, Gretzky’s deterioration has been overstated.

Ian Mendes of the Ottawa Citizen argued this recently about The Great One’s post-lockout career:

“Gretzky, who led the league in scoring [in 1993-94], finished in a tie for 19th in the scoring race [during 1994-95]…

[He]…finished 12th in NHL scoring in the 1995-96 season…And in his final three seasons in the league, Gretzky didn’t eclipse the 100-point plateau again.”

Plummeting from a league-leading 130 points in 1993-94, to 48, 102, 97, 90, and finally, 62 points in 1998-99, seems to make Mendes’s case.

Consider though that while Gretzky didn’t crack the century mark, he managed to finish fourth and third in league scoring in 1996-97 and 1997-98, respectively.

Was The Great One the same player that he was in 1993-94? Certainly not. But is there any statistical reason to acknowledge the lockout as a death knell for his career? Certainly not. If anything, he improved on his sub-standard play that season while on Broadway.

Beyond Gretzky, there are even examples of veterans who burnished their legacy in 1994-95, chiefly Scott Stevens and Steve Yzerman.

In 1993-94, the New Jersey captain finished fifth in points among defensemen while the Detroit captain was sixth in the league in points per game. The next season, Stevens dropped to 29th in points among defensemen and Yzerman collapsed to 66th in the league in points per game.

But statistics don’t tell the story here.

Both stars dedicated themselves that year, though not without some initial resistance, to more conscientious two-way hockey.

Before the lockout, the well-regarded Stevens was still best known for being a compensatory pawn in the formative years of NHL free agency and part of a sordid sex scandal, while Yzerman was perceived to be a one-dimensional offensive dynamo. During the shortened year, Stevens was asked by Jacques Lemaire to be the team’s “shutdown” defenseman, while Yzerman was asked by Scotty Bowman to scale back his offensive assaults.

The captains made the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time, with the Devil coming ahead, the first of three Stanley Cups for him. Stevie Y never came out on the losing end of another Final, also hoisting three Stanley Cups over the next decade.

Stevens and Yzerman’s legacy-defining sacrifices, along with Gretzky’s late career revival, are just a couple examples disproving the myth that the lockout irreparably damaged the careers of many older stars. While it’s reasonable to assume that the sprinter’s pace of 1994-95 made it harder for some veterans to catch up that season, a number of them came back “better than ever” in the following years.