Around the same time of year that Johnny
Freshman waves farewell to his parents from the steps of Couzens
Residence Hall, National Hockey League players normally return to
their “home away from home” cities for another season.
But with an impending labor strike, NHL players will miss a good
chunk (most likely all) of their season due to the lockout. And the
greatest trophy in all sports — the Stanley Cup — might
not be awarded for the first time since 1919, when a flu epidemic
in Canada canceled the finals.

Brian Schick

But you couldn’t possibly care less, could you? At least
if you’re an American anyway.

Hockey in America has slowly fallen off our sporting radar in
recent years, and it currently resides slightly above Major League
Soccer and the WNBA in terms of prestige. You’ll be lucky to
find an NHL boxscore located before page 6B in most sporting
sections across the country.

The only thing that could take it one step lower would be to not
play any games. Oh wait, they’re doing that already.

Are you even aware that the World Cup of Hockey is taking place
right now? (Wait … I thought the World Cup was for soccer
…) Could you name the eight teams? Can you name three
American players? (Yes, the United States is in it.)

I may be one of the few die-hard NHL fans left in the United
States, but even I’m finding it tough to endure another
embarrassment. I’ve been a fan of the San Jose Sharks since
their inception in 1991, and lived and died with their success and
multiple failures. I might be one of the few Americans to name an
NHL team as my favorite sports organization. My biggest moment was
watching the Sharks advance to the conference finals this past
season with expectations of a possible trip to the Stanley Cup
finals this year — but it looks like it will still be a dream
of mine.

After the 1994-95 season had a late start due to a player
lockout and teams played a condensed 48-game season, I was
confident that the NHL learned its lesson to avoid pissing off its
dwindling American fan base. Unless something drastic happens in
the next few days — which is highly unlikely, as both sides
are as far apart as they were a year ago — the NHL will never
regain its claim as a major professional sports league.

Since most Americans are unfamiliar with the NHL to begin with,
I’ll bet that there are more Americans that know the words to
“O Canada” than are familiar with the NHL collective
bargaining agreement (O Canada, our home and native land …
Oh. Sorry.), so I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes
version. Basically, the NHL owners are losing money faster than
Mike Tyson. According to the NHL website, 16 of the league’s
30 franchises lost money last season, four of them losing more than
$30 million. This is based in large part to rising salary costs, as
the average NHL player makes $1.79 million — a number that is
increasing an average of 9 percent each season.

While I believe that NHL players are the most athletic of the
four major leagues (Disagree? You try to move a rubber disk around
a player trying to run you over on quarter-inch skates), their
salaries have ballooned at a rate owners can no longer support. The
owners want to put a salary cap on each team to limit the amount
each team can spend. The players association counters that the
players should be paid what the market should bear and the owners
shouldn’t have shelled out the big bucks in the first place.
So who’s to blame? A little of both, but mostly the
players.

One would think that the players would be willing to take a pay
cut to save the league. (“Hey Peter Forsberg — would
you be willing to take a pay cut in your $11 million salary to save
the NHL?”
) Sounds reasonable, right? Well, Forsberg is
one of a growing number of players who has decided to sign a
contract with European clubs for this season. (“Pay cut?
You mean I’d have to sell my third vacation house in Aruba?
Forget it!”
) That’s what makes this situation
especially dangerous for the NHL — unlike when the NFL went
on strike in 1987, the NHL players have alternative and, more
importantly, competitive leagues to turn to. A new league has even
been formed in America — the World Hockey Association —
to try and woo unemployed NHL players.

So, if Americans don’t care about the NHL, who does? Well,
saying our friendly neighbors to the North have a considerable
interest in hockey would be the biggest understatement since Pete
Rose said, “I never bet on baseball.” CBC Sports has to
be scrambling to find programming to fill its Saturday night slot
normally reserved for “Hockey Night in Canada” and Don
Cherry will have to find someone to listen to his ravings.

Two Canadian teams moved south after the fallout of the
’95 strike. And with four of the six current Canadian
franchises in the poorest third of the NHL, things don’t look
any brighter. Add in the fact that the Canadian clubs have to pay
their players in U.S. dollars while receiving their revenue in
Canadian dollars ($1 Canadian = $0.77 U.S.) With that kind of Enron
economics, an exodus of teams across the border seems
inevitable.

So if Canadian teams can’t afford to stay in the Great
White North, and U.S. fans remain as apathetic as ever, will the
NHL survive? My take is that it will, but not with 30 teams. And if
the players don’t want to play in the NHL, it only seems
logical that casual American fans should return the indifference.
But they need to be worried about the die-hards, like me, also
jumping ship.

 

—Brian Schick would love to discuss how the red line
has ruined the NHL in recent years. He can be reached at
“mailto:bschick@umich.edu”>bschick@umich.edu.

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