Tuesday, May 21, 2013
We've been here before. Quite often, in fact. The clock struck midnight -- literally -- on the NHL season Saturday night. At that moment franchise owners locked out their players and the league plunged into its fourth work stoppage in the last 20 years.
Hockey isn't the only sport to lock out its fans. In fact, it's the third major pro sport to go through a work stoppage in the last year and a half. Yet the NFL managed to wrap up its labor problems before Opening Day, and the NBA shaved 16 games off each team's schedule but had everyone back on the court in time for the wildly popular Christmas Day games.
If Christmas Day is a gift for basketball fans, New Year's Day is the biggest celebration of the pro hockey calendar. The annual Winter Classic has been one of the greatest things to ever happen to the NHL. The outdoor game is popular with fans, and a profitable event for the league and NBC. This year some 115,000 are expected to watch the Red Wings and Maple Leafs take the (natural) ice at Michigan Stadium.
Do you have any confidence that this lockout will be settled by then?
It seems like little has changed since 2004, when the NHL became the only league to lose an entire season to a labor dispute. At the time, no one believed the men who run the game would be crazy enough to let a full season go by without hockey. That lockout set the industry back years.
Still, hockey fans came back. By all accounts, the game is healthier now than it has ever been. In the past two weeks, the Boston Bruins committed some $70.5 million in contract extensions to three players.
Yet the league believes there is financial doom ahead. In a letter to fans, the league said it is concerned about "competitive balance." In order to achieve that balance, the NHL is "focused on a fairer and more sustainable division of revenues with the players."
Sounds like the league is trying to protect owners from themselves.
In Boston, the Bruins have always avoided the reckless behavior of other teams. They won a Stanley Cup with a talented roster that fit under the salary cap, and now GM Peter Chiarelli is moving to keep that roster intact. Yet other teams have always overspent, and signed players for contracts stretching more than a decade.
The B's have reached a level of popularity unmatched in the last 20 years. That popularity will remain when the team returns to the ice, whenever that is. That won't be the case in other markets. Think Columbus, Ohio, and Nashville, Tenn., will easily weather a prolonged work stoppage?
The Lords of the Rinks would be wise to learn lessons from football and basketball. When the NFL returned in time for the start of the season, its popularity was at an all-time high. The NBA's return on Christmas Day led to record ratings in the NBA finals.
Hockey fans will probably forgive a short-term stoppage. No one will mourn the loss of training camp, and an October without hockey won't be too painful. But if this game isn't up and running by Thanksgiving it will risk further bruising fans who have lived through more labor issues than folks who follow other sports.
At some point those fans will say "enough is enough." The NHL would do well to avoid reaching that point of no return.
Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.