What will the negative impact of a lockout be?

     The NHL got lucky at the time of the last lockout, not only because the stalemate was short (only thirty-four games were lost), but also because the league’s fan base did not revolt in displeasure. It took almost five years for fans of Major League Baseball to completely forgive the owners and players for the work stoppage that cancelled the 1994 World Series. To say that the NHL would be as lucky in the event of another lockout would be foolish.

     The NHL continues to fight the perception that it is a Canadian game by nature, and one that American cities simply participate in. True the origins of the game are attributed to our northern neighbors, but hockey has been an institution in the US for nearly a century. The NHL, despite having only six teams in its original inception, was a fixture long before the rise of the NBA and dominance of the current NFL.

     The fan base of the NHL is relatively small, but dedicated, compared to the other professional leagues. There are no crossover stars, players able to attract even the most casual sports fan (the most famous example being Wayne Gretzky). The few American born players are quality stars in their own right, but nowhere near as attractive as an Alex Rodriguez, Peyton Manning, or the newly hyped LeBron James. With more and more foreign-born players dominating the sport, the dilution of homegrown contributions is only becoming more prevalent.

     Consider also that the television ratings for the NHL’s shared games on ABC and ESPN are dwindling, and you see how important a lockout could be to the league’s finances. Hockey is consistently lagging behind the three other top leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA), but it also draws smaller numbers compared to golf, NASCAR, and even bowling at some points. Competition is also coming in the rebirth of the World Hockey Association, a rival league in the 1970’s that is forming once again to take advantage of a possible lockout.


     All five of the above NHL stars have made history throughout their spectacular careers, but should a lockout commence, they would most likely be history. Colorado Avalanche center and 2002 NHL MVP Peter Forsberg has already made it known that should the NHL enter a labor crisis, he will return to his native Sweden. Pittsburgh Penguins center/owner Mario Lemieux has hinted at his second retirement should there be a lockout. Players like Carolina's Ron Francis, 40, and Rangers captain Mark Messier, 43, will certainly take a long look at the lockout forecast and decide whether they want to hang around for what would be another season or two at the most of playing. Detroit's Brett Hull has no intention of leaving the game, and has stated that he will join his father in the WHA should the NHL encounter a stoppage. Flyers center Jeremy Roenick, who played several games in Germany during the last stoppage, is also set on the WHA should there be no alternative. "It's just rumblings going on, no real talks," Roenick says. "My options would be to go to Europe. And I have had some friendly talks with Brett Hull and other people about the WHA starting up. They want to start up in eight or 10 cities. If they can manage to pull that off, I would definitely be looking to go into one of those cities to help them start up the league."

     "Bobby said he thinks there will be teams by next year," Roenick said. "And talking with Brett throughout the past year, he says his dad is trying hard to get it going. I think as many guys [around the league] as possible will be doing this. They're going to try and get work. No one wants to sit around and not play hockey."

     
The NHL has spent the last decade working to establish fiscal sanity and a large national following. While it has arguably failed on the first account, it has done a decent job in attracting a devoted fan base, though not as large as desired. To shut out the few available fans now would be asinine, and could seriously damage the hopes of one day surpassing the numbers for other leagues. Fans have grown tired of seeing multi-millionaires gripe over more money, and the insult would be worse if owners were to raise ticket prices to recoup lost income. The NHL is gambling either way, but to shut the game down completely could damage its integrity long after even the new CBA expires.

So, what can be done to avoid a lockout?