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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 February, 2005, 15:50 GMT
NHL heading for the precipice
By Ben Dirs

United Center, home of the Chicago Blackhawks

Ever watched two men squabbling at the wheel of a clapped out car as it careered towards the edge of a cliff?

Perhaps not. But for the voyeuristic among you, news of the National Hockey League's decision to cancel the current season will provide much the same sensation.

The row between owners and players is essentially over salary capping, with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman warning that if salaries are not lowered, the game is set for financial meltdown.

Bettman says the NHL lost 264m over the past two seasons and wanted to lower the average salary from 0.96m to 0.69m.

The owners say they are trying to prevent a debacle similar to the ITV Digital-Football League fiasco, want to stop teams falling into financial ruin and get them operating like viable businesses.

Last September, the NHL tried to obtain a cap and fix salaries to no more than 55% of revenues, a move opposed by players grown used to astronomical pay-packets.

In December, the league dropped its demand for linked salaries and players accepted a 24% cutback and it looked as if the season might be salvaged.

But a compromise could not be reached on the salary cap (the owners wanted it at 22.6m, the players at 26m) and the NHL shut up shop.

Only time will tell how we're going to win those people back
NHL legend Wayne Gretzky

Ice hockey, already the runt of the litter in terms of North America's big four team sports, can ill afford more slings and arrows.

The last 10 years have seen declining television exposure and audience figures while defensive tactics have taken hold and blunted the sport as a spectacle.

Tellingly, there have been no great demonstrations, with most fans in America looking on in dismay rather than anger.

American network ESPN asked 106,000 viewers whether they cared about the NHL lockout and 64% answered "no".

In the American media there is a growing ambivalence towards the sport.

An ESPN journalist reasoned that the only people bothered by the NHL lockout are a "few loyal pro puck fans still wandering the plains of Manitoba and Minnesota".

In the 1990s the number of franchises grew from 21 to 30 as the sport broke out from its traditional base (Canada, the Northeast and the Upper Midwest) and headed south to places like Atlanta and Nashville.

The roots of the sport are still fragile in so-called expansion cities and the lockout will be a severe test of their strength.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has warned of financial meltdown

Bettman insists the franchises will survive in the vacuum but the challenge for expansion teams will be holding on to disgruntled sponsors and their small bands of fans.

And while the short-term fall-out will be hardest felt in Canada, the sport's spiritual home, it is these expansion teams that are cause for most concern.

"In Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, people are going to be mad but eventually they will come back," said NHL legend Wayne Gretzky.

"But our project now is in places like Phoenix, Miami and Los Angeles, where we've been on the back burner. Only time will tell how we're going to win those people back."

Bettman says he will "explore all options" for the 2005/6 season, which sounds suspiciously like bringing in replacement players after an impasse has been reached.

This raises the bizarre prospect of ice hockey's cream plying their trade in Europe (almost 400 of 700 have already flown in) and second tier players filling their skates in the NHL.

Both owners and players admit there is unlikely to be much negotiating between now and September.

One can only hope both parties come to their senses, slam on the brakes and halt the wreck before it disappears from view.

Links to more US Sport stories


NHL calls time on 2004/05 season
16 Feb 05 |  US Sport
NHL season in balance
04 Feb 05 |  US Sport
NHL shutdown begins
15 Sep 04 |  US Sport

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