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Can The NHL Survive Another Lockout?

Evan Budrovich |
September 17, 2012 | 4:31 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer


Last year's MVP, Evgeni Malkin, has already bolted for Russia. (Canyonero/Wikimedia Commons)
Last year's MVP, Evgeni Malkin, has already bolted for Russia. (Canyonero/Wikimedia Commons)
As of 12 a.m. Sunday morning, the NHL joined the NBA, NFL, and NFL Officials as entities that have engaged in recent labor lockouts, leading to possible canceling of games.

The NHL has had its fare share of labor disputes, most recently in 2004-2005, in which the entire season was cancelled. This was the first time an entire North American season was cancelled, leaving a sour-note on the sport’s 95-year history.

As for 2012, the NHL and the NHL Players Association have made little progress this summer on their labor disputes. The league is searching for major pay cuts, while the players are only willing to make slight concessions.

The two sides unfortunately remain far apart on the core economic issues of a new deal, specifically revenue sharing and salary cap and floor negotiations. 

Just for clarification, the salary cap served it purpose before teams started to sign players to front-loaded, long-term deals to pass the soft salary cap. The teams at the top thrived financially, while teams at the bottom consistently struggled to reach the cap floor.

Regardless of all this jargon, the point remains that the NHL will not be playing games in the near future, and the product will lose popularity because of this. 

When the NHL hit rock bottom in 2004, the fans responded negatively the next season, damaging ticket sales in non-major markets. This was the season after the salary cap was raised by $5 million per team, while the salary floor was raised $8 million per team. 

Lets use the Los Angeles Kings as a prime example for our discussion on post-lockout ticket sales. In 2003, the Kings welcomed 733,464 guests to their home games, which put them at 12th in the league in overall attendance numbers. The next full season in 2005, the Kings received 731, 405 fans and ranked 11th in the league. 

The trend seems small but multiply this out over the entire league, and one begins to notice a recognizable drop in attendance and popularity.  Although ticket sales may have maintained in larger markets, such as Los Angeles, TV deals and attention from networks such as ABC, NBC and ESPN fell drastically. 

Heck, this NHL Lockout has received way less attention than the NBA and NFL lockouts by the national media. There is a reason folks; the NHL is not yet one of the big four sports, and remains in the closet as the little sister sport. 

The lockout will not affect the upper-echelons of the NHL, but will drastically affect business plans for the financially weaker teams in the league. Like my colleague Ann Frazier stated in her article on Sept. 16, teams are not making money, and fans will make matters even worse once ticket sales start to plummet.

If the league wants to save face in terms of popularity, it will reach a common ground and move forward in a positive direction. The issue is that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has experienced these types of negotiations before, and he will look to stand firm for the owners against Donald Fehr of the NHLPA. 

The league has registered record highs in revenues over the past few seasons, making now the time for the NHL to capitalize on its resurgence in the national sports scene. If so, it could possibly return as one of the big sports alongside football, basketball and baseball. 

Hockey will always be popular in Canada, because it is a greater part of the culture and is ingrained in Canadians’ blood, but American families have not built these same ideologies towards hockey. 

If American hockey wants to continue to rise, especially in lower-income communities where it has historically struggled, both parties need to make some concessions and work together towards creating an economically fair system.

At the same time, the salary cap disparity needs to be tightened for the sake of competitive balance and economic fairness. It is ironic because some could argue hockey is both the most balanced and inconsistent sport when it comes to seeding. 

Let’s hope the NHL can learn from other marquee sports and not resort to shipping players over seas and calling in replacement officials to get games played. 

According to the New York Times, Evgeni Malkin the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 26-year-old star, who was last season’s MVP, has transferred to Magnitogorsk, a prominent Russian Hockey League team. 

Could this be the beginning of an exodus to Europe and Russia to play hockey, a sport that is much more popular overseas? The last thing the league wants is to negotiate not only with its players, but also fight with international teams to allow their stars to return for NHL play. 

The regular season is scheduled to begin Oct. 11, making the ever approaching doomsday that much more deadly for the 2012 NHL season. 

Reach Staff Writer Evan Budrovich here, or follow him here.



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