Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Out Cold

The professional sports league that dubbed its product "The Coolest Game on Earth" has been put on ice for the past three months of its regular season.

Er, perhaps that was an inopportune use of an idiom. Long-suffering NHL fans have been waiting in vain for the ongoing lockout to end so that players can get back onto the ice and salvage what's left of the season. Considering the NHL is already a marginal professional association with only a small mainstream audience (relative to the American Big 3: NFL, MLB, and NBA), fans did not imagine that the league would shoot itself in the foot by scrapping play for an extended period. The only result has been to cause a few die-hard Canadians to get heartburn. Was the NHL actually expecting the American public to notice its absence?

A total of 903 games have already been cancelled, and what scares me is the lack of a serious effort to resolve the conflict. The loss of an entire season--something no major sports association in North America has ever faced--seems to be taken for granted with little regard for the consequences. Says Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos:
"I know personally that I'd be willing to risk another season. I'm enough of a hockey fan to realize that once we got it straightened out, the fans would come back."
Time for a reality check. Hockey doesn't enjoy the popularity of the MLB or NBA, let alone the NFL. There is no huge demand for the product here in the States. SportsCenter has not struggled to fill its airtime due to lack of highlight reel from the rinkside. The NHL through its lockout is losing its only chance of sustained growth and success. That chance is its ability to attract and draw in new and casual fans--a goal hard to achieve when your players are off moonlighting in Europe.

And now while any hopes of seeing the skates laced up this season appear to have faded as this winter drags on, none other than hockey legend Wayne Gretsky spoke up earlier this month with a dire warning of the unthinkable: "Lockout could last two years if no deal soon".
"I'm scared we could be looking at a year, year-and-a-half, two years, not just three months like a lot of people thought back in September.''
The Great One doesn't exaggerate. The owners and players must get together and find a way to make a healthy league function (it's called a compromise, fellas). Salary cap, contraction, whatever it takes. Or even true hockey fans like myself will be forced to cross-check the NHL off our lists.

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