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ISSUE 118 VOL 5 PUBLISHED 10/15/2004

The puck stops ... indefinitely?

By Ryan Maus
Staff Writer

Friday, October 15, 2004

If a tree falls in the middle of the forest, does it make a sound?

If a professional sport with limited national appeal closes its doors for a year (or more), will anyone notice?

If you are like the vast majority of American sports fans, you probably had no idea that one month ago today, the National Hockey League (NHL) began its long and arduous journey down the path of self-destruction. On Sept. 15, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the players and owners of the league were unsuccessful in their attempts to forge a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), signaling the beginning of a seemingly inevitable player lockout. NHL owners, players and fans have known for a long time that a work stoppage was unavoidable. The major issue? The owners want to place a hard salary cap on player salaries, and naturally, the players are vehemently opposed to any such limits on their earnings.

While the owners have an agenda of their own, no doubt, the current salary structure in the NHL is severely flawed.

How can a league in which multiple franchises are on the cusp of bankruptcy afford to pay the average player $1.83 million a year? How is it that Colorado's Peter Forsberg can earn $11 million a year when over half team's leagues are losing money at an alarming clip ($273 million total in 2002-2003 according to the NHL)? It pains me to agree with any action that discontinues a sport for financial reasons, but in this case, something has to be done.

The NHL wouldn't have lasted very long in its current state, so last month's lockout may in fact save the sport. However, this all begs one very important question. If hockey can indeed be saved, will there be any fans left when it returns?

Many people believe the current labor clash was unavoidable simply because the chasm separating the two sides makes the Grand Canyon look like a mere crack in the sidewalk. The recently expired CBA resembled that of Major League Baseball. Player contracts were guaranteed, meaning owners were forced to pay the excessive salaries they doled out even if a player became injured or performed poorly.

There was no salary cap, which meant the richest teams were outspending the poorest teams by a ratio of 3:1 (the margin is closer to 7:1 in baseball).

While such economic disparity is by no means healthy, a sport like baseball can survive, even thrive in many cases, because it enjoys such widespread popularity among the American public. Hockey enjoys no such luxury.

NHL owners are proposing an agreement similar to that of the National Football League. The NFL is the ultimate in owner profit potential. Player salaries are not guaranteed, so frivolous contracts can be given out with little regard for the long-term consequences. NFL teams also share their revenues evenly among all 32, most notably the league's gargantuan $2.2 billion TV contract. This allows the Green Bay Packers (who draw from a local population of about 200,000) to compete on equal footing with teams like the New York Giants (population over 21 million). Most importantly, the NFL's salary cap is calculated directly from overall league revenues. If the league is making less money, players get paid less. From an owner's perspective, it's a near-perfect system.

Unfortunately for hockey fans, it seems neither side is willing to compromise for the moment; negotiations are nonexistent. The most optimistic predictions say play may resume in January, but that possibility is becoming less likely with each passing day. More realistic forecasts say that play will not resume this year or even the next. In all likelihood this will be the longest work stoppage in the history of professional sports, eclipsing the 234-day baseball strike of 1994-95.

It has taken Major League Baseball almost 10 years to recover from that devastating strike, but I fear the sport of hockey may never fully recover.

The NHL's popularity in the United States has been slowly waning for years. TV ratings are plummeting (arena football now attracts more viewers), attendance is down, and the league has never been further removed from the consciousness of the average American sports fan. Once thought of as an up-and-comer in the country's sporting landscape, the NHL no longer even warrants mention alongside the big boys that are the NFL, NBA and MLB.

"Hockey has become the curling of professional sports," said Jon Mandel of the ad agency Mediacom, and hes exactly right. One of the only places the NHL will be missed is in Canada, where people still live and breathe hockey.

But can a major professional sport really survive in a country of only 30 million widely dispersed people? Doesn't sound too feasible now, eh?

While no one knows just when the lockout will end, one thing is certain: the American sports fan wont be holding his or her breath in the meantime. There are a plethora of other sporting events to occupy out there to occupy our time, including the NFL season, baseball playoffs and upcoming NBA season. NHL beat writers are already being reassigned to more relevant topics like college hockey, spelling bees and yes, curling. The NHL will be missed by few.

The proverbial tree has fallen. Predictably, the ensuing silence has been nothing short of deafening.

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