Thursday, July 14, 2005

Back on the ice

The armistice has been signed.
The NHL and their players have reportedly hammered out an agreement, 310 days after their now-epic lockout began in September.
Canada is unofficially off suicide watch, and there will now be a full 2005-06 NHL season. Raise your hand if you live in the United States and you care.
That's hockey's problem, and it might make hammering out a labor deal with a salary cap seem like a game of checkers.
Who missed the NHL last season? At least when baseball went on strike in 1994, there was resounding bitterness, meaning the general public cared to a greater or lesser extent. Even then, most cities took five years or more to wash the taste of that labor stoppage out of their mouths.
But the NHL, the fourth of the four major sports leagues, cooked up something worse than even the witch's brew Bud Selig and Don Fehr concocted 11 years ago. The NHL lost a whole season. A whole season in a league already riddled with teams in the red, a league that already seriously overestimated their mass-appeal when they started to expand in earnest in the 1990s.
A whole season for a league without a national free-TV network contract in the U.S.
The NHL lost a lot of relevance in the past year. When baseball went on strike, fans from coast to coast swore they would never attend another baseball game in their lives. That was the hurt talking.
Hockey fans might skip the swearing and just not show up. That's the apathy talking.
Hockey will survive in Canada, at least the major cities, because it is in their cultural DNA. Hockey will survive in Detroit and Denver because they have good teams. Hockey will survive in St. Louis, New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles and Chicago because the cities have enough sports revenue to go around.
Miami, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Phoenix and Pittsburgh might be another story. Pittsburgh is a hockey town, but the Penguins are pitiful and in financial dire straits. The other cities are warm-weather towns. You try to be a Florida Panthers PR man in Miami and convince 20,000 South Floridians to come watch a losing team that plays on ice when there is sunshine and surf all around.
People move to Florida so they don't have to be around ice in January.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are still the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Who in Tampa is going to get pumped about defending a title two years after the fact?
I'll be interested to see how the landscape of the sport changes in the coming years. Will any teams fold or move? Will any eastern European players forego the NHL and its problems to play on their home continent? And, above all, will anyone be watching?

1 comment:

Citizen Grim said...

I will be watching! Long live the Philadelphia Flyers!

Let's get LeClair another Stanley Cup before he retires!

*crosses fingers*