Hockey's problem is bad management. Or the sport itself. Or weather. Or none of the above.
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic) discuss National Hockey League's player lockout, for which there's little end in sight.
In my time on this earth, no league has appeared as hell-bent on self-destruction as the National Hockey League. Hockey became the first of the four so-called major American sports leagues (along with the NFL, NBA, and MLB) to lose an entire season to labor strife when the posturing of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA head Bob Goodenow led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 campaign. In the aftermath of that first catastrophic lockout, the league and its players worked to craft a long-term labor agreement, so that no future seasons would be lost.
Eight years later, the NHL is in the exact same spot it was in the fall of 2004: acrimonious labor negotiations, incompetent leadership on both sides, and no end in sight. Bettman has said that the season must start by mid-January or the NHL will lose another year of action and whatever shred of relevancy it has left. But this week, the players are voting on whether to disclaim their union, a move that would allow individual players to file antitrust suits against the NHL and team owners. Hockey diehards have long since given up hope of an end to the impasse—my brother, one of the biggest New York Rangers fans on the planet, has been forced to travel to Hartford, Connecticut, to get his fix.
At this point, I believe I speak for the non-hockey diehards among us when I say: Who cares? In the digital age, there are countless sports leagues get involved in, from the EPL to the Australian Football League. There's no reason to keep worrying—or thinking at all—about a dysfunctional league with too many teams by half and a commissioner who is as impotent as he is incompetent. Other than Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and maybe Jonathan Quick, the league simply doesn't have enough star power to withstand a second lost season in the last decade. And that may be for the best. A 16-team hockey league that focuses on the northern U.S. and Canada would be far superior to the NHL, and far more operationally functional.
What do you think, fellas? Is the NHL officially irrelevant? Should we care? And what would you do to fix North American pro hockey?