What Exactly Is Killing the NHL?

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Hockey's problem is bad management. Or the sport itself. Or weather. Or none of the above.

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Florida Panthers hockey player Stephen Weiss talks to the media after an informal skate as the lockout looms. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

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.


Gentlemen,

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?

–Jake

Jake,

There are two problems, really. The first, as you note, is the league. Bettman and Goodenow are doing an awful job. That's self-evident. The lack of a season would is one clue. The sad tale of the Phoenix Coyotes, NHL-owned since 2009, is another.

Playing anything on ice is expensive—in more ways than one

But let's ignore how badly the league runs, or doesn't, and consider some larger concerns about the game of ice hockey itself. Like you say Jake, the modern fan has options. If people are choosing Aussie Rules football over hockey, it's fair to ask why.

First off, playing anything on ice is expensive—in more ways than one.

Literally, of course, pucks, goals and skates aren't free. Neither is rink time. But the sport also suffers from what I'd call the "Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy Effect" —named for the hyper-complicated pastime of the masses in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Hockey involves so many people, so much equipment, and takes such a specialized playing surface that it almost seems designed to consume resources. It comes off as gauche somehow in these carbon footprint-conscious times to watch people ice-skate in Arizona.

Which gets to the game's bigger problem. Winter. People hate it. The population of North America has been steadily migrating into Sun Belt cities for decades. That, plus a climate pattern that seems to be warming suggests that far fewer people will be growing up next to frozen lakes with hockey sticks in hand, which in turn means a lot less people to play or care about the sport.

Overhauling the NHL—including contraction to 16 teams—makes sense in the short term. Half a league is better than none. Generally, though, pro hockey is headed for the dusty shelf labeled "sports your grandfather cared about," where it will sit next to a bowling league trophy, a pair of amateur boxing gloves, and the shoes he wore to play stickball.

–Hampton

Hampton,

I disagree with you and Jake. No matter what happens with the current lockout, professional hockey will be fine. I mean, sure: If you measure the NHL's relevance by comparing it to the overall popularity of NFL, college football or Major League Baseball, then yes, the sport doesn't matter in America. Of course, by the same lofty standards no other sports matter: not NASCAR, not golf, not MMA, not college hoops, not MLS, not even the NBA.

Hockey needs the diehards. And if there's one thing past sports work stoppages have taught us, it's that diehard fans come back.

Last time I checked, all of those sports—plus Aqua Velva-and-suits-on-airplanes grandfather-class sports like horse racing and boxing—still had lots of fans. And were still making money, too.

Point is, pro hockey is niche sport. Just like every sport that isn't the NFL. And that's okay. From narrowcast cable channels to single-issue blogs and websites, we live in a media world that increasingly caters to niche audiences. Jake writes that non-hockey diehards could care less about the NHL lockout. He's correct. Thing is, those same casual fans don't particularly care about the league when it is playing, either. Yet hockey endures. It doesn't need those fans to survive. They're a luxury item. Hockey needs the diehards. And if there's one thing past sports work stoppages have taught us, it's that diehard fans come back. They always come back. Ultimately, they enjoy the product too much to stay away; heck, the whole idea of boycotting a sport because you're upset that the sport was temporarily and unexpectedly unavailable doesn't make sense in the first place.

(Think about it: if you're a big-time Batman fan, and director-studio wrangling pushes the theater date of The Dark Knight Begins Rising Again from 2014 to 2015, are you going to boycott the movie to prove some sort of petulant point? Or are you first in line at a midnight showing?)

Look, the NHL lockout isn't good for the sport. Everyone agrees that the much-loathed Bettman is no Pete Rozelle. The league likely has over-expanded into places like Phoenix, the way pro football keeps trying to gain a foothold across a globe that's passionately indifferent. Still, existential panic is uncalled for. The current work stoppage isn't about hockey's modest popularity, lack of crossover stars or—as you suggest—the unfavorable demographic and meteorological trends of Sun Belt migration and global warming. It's simply about money. The owners want a bigger piece of the revenue pie, largely because they don't feel like sharing with one another; the players, in the wise words of inimitable sports and politics writer Charlie Pierce, are acting like a labor union, and "doing so in a general social and cultural context in which seeing a union behave like an actual union is supposed to behave strikes everyone silly with shock and wonder." Sooner or later, the owners will snatch themselves another slice, or else the players will beat them back. The NHL will then return, and there's absolutely no way the league will contract to half its current size, not when the business of pro hockey is: (a) profitable when you make money; (b) profitable when you lose money, thanks to assorted tax shelters and other Sports Welfare. Hockey ain't Hostess.

That said, the sport does face a long-term existential threat. Brain trauma. And as we all know, that hardly makes hockey unique.

–Patrick

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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