NHL 2005?

I guess this is what it looks like when a sports league trips over its own skates. With no talks scheduled for this weekend, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will most likely cancel the season in the next day or two, thus putting an end to chapter one in the battle between the players and the owners, which has turned into a death struggle.

I’ve read a lot of bloggers who are siding with the owners on this one, basically calling on the players to accept the salary cap and deal with it. I can’t agree with that sentiment. Neither side has been willing to make any significant compromises in their negotiations. They both seem more content to break the other than to fix hockey. Besides, it’s not the players that got the league into this mess. The players don’t decide to offer exorbitant contracts to washed up talent. The players didn’t decide to expand the league to where the fans don’t even know what ice looks like. The owners were the ones who decided to expand to the sunbelt. They were the ones who offered NBA contracts to players when the league gets MLS ratings on television (if it’s lucky). I don’t like the players’ stubbornness during the negotiations, but you can’t blame them for the predicament the league is in. The owners brought that on themselves. The players realize that they have a golden goose and are trying to protect it, even if doing so is shortsighted in the long run.

The worst part about the hockey lockout is, as ESPN columnist Bill Simmons says, people just don’t care. No one is talking about the lockout except hockey lovers. That fact is probably more illustrative of hockey’s problems than anything else. Hockey is just not on the American consciousness the way baseball, football, basketball, and NASCAR (barf) are. The great Stanley Cup playoffs haven’t been a good television draw the past couple years. In fact, ESPN’s replacement programming this season—poker tournaments, bass fishing, billiards, etc.—has often drawn higher ratings than hockey did. A cancelled season and a potential strike next year (as the owners try to implement their plans via the courts causing a player walkout and a season played by replacements) will only solidify hockey as a niche sport like beach volleyball or MLS soccer.

But is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Suppose this season is cancelled and next season is played by minor leaguers before the owners finally get their way and impose a salary cap. The casual hockey fan is done for the forseeable future, meaning a lot of small market and sunbelt franchises will have a hard time fielding competitive teams regardless of what financial leash the players are under. Suppose then that the league relocates a few franchises, say to Milwaukee, Quebec, Seattle, and perhaps adding a second team in Toronto or Montreal, and contracts others heading northward. The some changes are made to game play (see hockeypundits) and the league reboots as a hearty, tough, blue-collar, cold-weather game, as it used to be before the league put three teams in FLORIDA. Simmons’s XHL becomes unnecessary. Plus, the league would be smaller, so on-ice play would controlled by talented players rather than by systems like the neutral zone trap.

Hockey is an exciting game, especially live. It’s faster than soccer or baseball, it’s more physical than basketball, and the action is more constant than in football. There’s no reason the league should be going through what it’s going through right now, except for lack of leadership. The NHL and the NHLPA need to work together to make this tragedy an opportunity to fix the game. Instead, they’re both well on their way to earning game misconducts.

UPDATE: Some sports economists are agreeing with me: take the opportunity of a canceled season to reboot the league and start over.

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