The NHL has consistently been the odd black sheep of the “big” American sports leagues. The NFL owns Sundays, the MLB is the official league of “America’s pastime” and the NBA is where amazing happens. The NHL? Truthfully speaking, hockey has lacked a catchphrase in the modern Internet era.
Until now. The NHL: where killing the golden goose happens.
Since Gary Bettman became dictator (sorry, commissioner) in 1993, the NHL has been involved in four—yes, four—labor-related lockouts, starting back in 1994 until most recently in 2004. The 2004 lockout was devastating for the relatively small NHL, which alienated a vast majority of its fan base by canceling an entire season at the request of the owners and the NHL board of governors.
But the final outcome was beneficial for both sides: a 57/43 split of revenues towards the players, reduced ages for full free agency, and most importantly, a salary cap for all teams that was tied to the revenues drawn in by the league. After each lockout, the NHL has been gifted with a get-out-of-jail-free card, a golden egg that hatches a new golden goose.
The NHL over the last few years has been steadily growing, with more and more fans drawn in by the mesmerizing wide-open play brought about by subtle rule changes, the drama of regular season shootouts, numerous “did you see that?” comebacks in the playoffs and large-market teams like Boston and Los Angeles hoisting the revered Stanley Cup. Also of note is the fact that, outside of boxing and MMA fighting, the NHL is the only league that encourages players to take violent swings at each other for fun.
The Winter Classic, an outdoor game played once a year, has become one of the hottest attractions in the sporting world. And the NHL has pioneered what is, in my opinion, one of the most entertaining All-Star Game formats ever created, with captains from each conference getting to pick their own teams from a fan-selected pool. Viewership has increased each year since the lockout ended, capped by a record-setting 2011-2012 season. Bettman went from public enemy number one to number two.
Again, this begs the question: why stop a good thing?
The NHL is not the NFL. As Steve Young aptly stated a few weeks ago, demand for NFL games is inelastic to the point of absurdity. Despite a bitter lockout, the concussion crisis, rising ticket prices, backlash against commissioner Roger Goodell and the replacement referee catastrophe, the NFL continues to churn out revenue in multiples of multiple billions of dollars. Ironically, the NFL is officially a nonprofit organization. Right. For whatever reason, regardless of the anger and hatred people feel towards the NFL shield, they keep coming back to watch games and buy merchandise year after year after year.
The NHL, on the other hand, has a much smaller following, with small market teams and loyal fans driving much of the league’s revenue. Truthfully, the NHL cannot afford another lockout so soon after the bitter ending to the previous one. The 2005 collective bargaining agreement lasted exactly seven years before going the way of the dodo; in that time, the NHL has almost managed to bring its popularity back up to what it was in the days of yore. Now, who knows how far ratings will drop after another public relations disaster.
I can use myself as a perfect example of the fair weather fans that the NHL has tried to reach out to over these last few years. I had not played or watched a single minute of hockey until my family moved to Cupertino in 2004, but through some nifty league-sponsored promotions I was able to go to some San Jose Sharks games.
The speed and thrill of the game sucked me in. I found myself watching hockey when nothing else was on, which is exactly what the NHL was hoping for. When the playoffs came about, I would tune in as rabidly as a diehard fan, hoping to catch a glimpse of something incredible. Hockey slowly climbed the ladder on my sports hierarchy, mainly because it was visible and fun. As more and more games are cancelled, the memory of good hockey will fade in the minds of fans and the NHL both loses money and betrays all the good will it has earned over the last few years.
Like the football referee crisis, the latest NHL lockout has distracted from what may be the biggest issue facing all contact sports: player safety.
Concussions and severe injuries are on a dangerous upswing in both football and hockey, simply because players are getting bigger, faster and stronger, making collisions and contact plays all the more vicious. For hockey, this issue has gained more notoriety because of its effect on Sidney Crosby, inarguably the biggest superstar in the hockey world today.
In the same way that the replacement referees were all people talked about in the early weeks of the NFL season, the NHL has, by its own choice, made its ineptitude the talking point of this currently cancelled preseason.
The biggest difference is that the NFL can weather the storm; so long as football isn’t illegal, people will come in droves to watch and enjoy. The same cannot be said about the NHL, which now faces a determining moment in its future.
Sadly, I think it is too late for the NHL to recover; they’ve already killed the golden goose three times over. This time, there is no mystical golden egg available for them to get a fresh start.
Vignesh Venkataraman played backup quarterback in high school and his “Red Eighty” cadence before each snap put Andrew Luck to shame. Hire him as your personal quarterback coach at firstname.lastname@example.org.