February 16, 2005

NHL Judgment Day Arrives

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Some possible headlines that may appear today:

NHL SEASON CANCELLED: Commissioner Gary Bettman announces the cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season.


NHL SEASON SAVED: Commissioner Gary Bettman announces that the NHLPA and the league have reached an 11th-hour agreement.

The 2004-05 NHL season hangs in the balance as I write this, with the players’ association having until 11 a.m. EST today to agree to a new collective bargaining agreement, which would include a $44.7 million individual team cap. If it does not, Bettman ’74 will cancel the season at 1 p.m.

When the lockout began exactly five months ago today, hockey fans and players alike anticipated a long labor dispute. After months of negotiation, there is finally closure on this unfortunate season. Whether the season is indeed cancelled or an extremely shortened season is played, there is already a stain on the game.

Let’s say there is a shortened season. How many games are they going to squeeze in? Well, if the season started at the beginning of March, under the current schedule, there would be about 20 games left. That’s certainly not enough to compile any meaningful results. If the league pushes the playoffs back, we’re looking at hockey in July, and that would definitely interfere with the start of next season. So, even if the players do agree to this salary cap, a shortened season is still a terrible idea.

Instead of a 20-game “season,” the NHL should instead put together a 20-game exhibition schedule for every team. That way, the fans get their hockey, the players can get reacquainted with their teammates, and the league can make some money. Put the Stanley Cup away for one year, but still bring hockey back into the American sports landscape.

However, the season will probably be cancelled and the possibility of an exhibition season is also unlikely. It looks like the NHL — and its players, because they’re just as much at fault — will be writing an unfortunate chapter into the history book of modern sports.

If this deal does not get done today, negotiations need to continue immediately. Even though this labor dispute has been on the horizon for almost two years, postponing the new CBA is not an option. Obviously, some sort of salary cap should be implemented, but the league’s marketing department needs to kick into overdrive to win back its fan base and maybe attract some new fans.

There’s also the 2006 Olympics and the 2005 draft to worry about. If this season is lost, then NHL players will not be playing in Turin next year. With the potential next Wayne Gretzky entering the league next year in Sidney Crosby, a fair draft order needs to be established.

This whole thing comes at a difficult time for the American sports fan. With the Super Bowl finished and March Madness still weeks away, the next few weeks are arguably one of the most boring sports periods of the year. With no hockey, it’s been all basketball, all the time, on SportsCenter. ESPN is so desperate for material that it’s been recycling segments from a week ago. It also tried to hype up the Pro Bowl, but no serious sports fan was going to watch that game for more than five minutes anyway.

America is a four-sport country. We don’t have the attention span or the craziness to devote ourselves to only one single sport. With Europeans enjoying NHL players over in their hockey leagues, Americans should take something back — namely European soccer. Now, obviously the world’s best soccer players aren’t going to transfer to the MLS, but they are easily accessible through Fox Soccer Channel. Formerly Fox Sports World, Fox Soccer Channel features matches from the English, German, French, and Argentinean leagues, as well as the Champions League and World Cup qualifiers.

While most Americans aren’t really enamored with the game, there are many parallels to our sports: $100 million-plus payrolls (see Chelsea and Manchester United), intense rivalries, multiple leagues to follow, fan violence (AS Roma was forced to play a December game in an empty stadium after one of its fans threw a coin at a referee), and more. And, since there are no commercials during soccer broadcasts (except during halftime), watching soccer will probably increase the average attention span in this country. While many consider soccer boring at first glance, there is an incredible amount of excitement, talent, and creativity in the game — evidenced by the occasional soccer play that makes it into SportCenter’s Top 10 Plays. It’s usually pretty amazing.

Even though professional hockey is most likely on hiatus for the next few months, college hockey fans will still have another two months to get their hockey fix. And, while the Stanley Cup probably won’t be lifted this year, a regular hockey event still occurred — that would be Boston University winning the Beanpot.

Archived article by Jonathan Auerbach
Sun Staff Writer