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The Death of the NHL And Its Plan for Resurrection

While a labor dispute was killing this season, optimists at the NHL donned rose-colored glasses to look beyond a grim present to a future of more scoring, tight sweaters and HDTV

Long before stalled labor talks brought NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to the brink of canceling the 2004--05 season, NHL Players' Association senior director Ted Saskin had penciled in an epitaph for the Invisible League. "Significant philosophical differences," Saskin said last month, were blocking a deal. The phrase lent an august tone to this fiscal tug-of-war, as if Socrates and Saint Augustine had been in a secret location debating the acquisition of knowledge (the Greek favors inquiry, Saint Augustine faith; no word on salary caps) instead of owners and players arguing over which economic system should define a $2 billion business. The question of which side held the moral high ground--the NHL with its demand for a link between revenues and salaries or the NHLPA with its market-based system--would be rendered moot; high ground vanishes immediately when 30 owners and 700-plus players follow their leaders off a cliff. As SI went to press on Monday night, the league would not confirm reports that it planned to scrap the season in a Wednesday announcement.

"I think this is going to throw hockey into the Dark Ages," Detroit Red Wings center Kris Draper said. "For a sport struggling to find its identity in a lot of markets, to walk away for a year and a half, two years, and think you'll start right back as a major sport, that's impossible."

The news is bleak, the numbers unsettling for what would be the first North American major league to lose an entire year to a labor dispute. In a Gallup poll of sports fans--not hockey fans specifically--taken Jan. 7-9, half the respondents said they would not be "disappointed at all" if the season were canceled. (Many sports fans didn't even notice the NHL was gone. "In Anaheim people would come up to me in restaurants and ask how my year was going," said Paul Kariya, a former Mighty Ducks star who played for Colorado in 2003-04. "I had to tell them we weren't playing.") More stunning, the Canadian polling company Pollara found last month that 77% of Canadians did not miss NHL hockey. As Ken Dryden, a six-time Stanley Cup--winning goalie and now Canada's Minister of Social Development, said, "There are a number of fans in this country who have sensed over the last ... months that maybe [NHL hockey] was more habit than it was passion."

Alas, the league may be facing the yawn of a new era.

Certainly it will be a different one. Depending on the length of the disruption, a cluster of aging Hall of Fame--bound players--among them Mark Messier, Al MacInnis and perhaps Steve Yzerman and Chris Chelios--could unceremoniously vanish. Despite Bettman's steadfast stance against contraction, there is no guarantee all 30 teams will return, either. If the NHL tries to declare an impasse and implement a salary-cap system for the 2005--06 season (box, page 63), it would raise the specter of replacement players and create long-lasting animus not only with the players' association but also with the league's business partners. "This season [being canceled] was not unexpected," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports consultant. "[NHL business partners] already had [accounted] for it. If next season becomes questionable, then there's real trouble. Uncertainty on a business level is deadly. Sponsors are going to start looking elsewhere to spend their money."

Yet with an optimism matched only by Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss, the NHL is looking beyond all that to a markedly different future. In its eventually attained cost-certain universe, the fantasists who run the league see a high-scoring game with players in Spiderman-like jerseys dashing up ice that glistens on high-definition televisions--and, thus, raises U.S. television ratings. The NHL calls it a relaunch.

"In a sense we have to say, 'Screw tradition,'" said NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, who oversees the on-ice product. "Of course we don't want to sacrifice our heritage. You're not going to be seeing four-on-four for 60 minutes, but there are things we can do to make it better. We have to have an open mind."

For a league so reflexively hidebound it would think twice about cracking a box of After Eight mints at 7:45, this is startling. Over the past decade, as it sank deeper into the muck of the Dead Puck era, the league peddled tired lines about improved "flow" and scoring chances even if the matches were too often eyesores. As one NHL star said last month, "Look at the game--it's awful. The league has become dominated by run-of-the-mill defensemen grabbing you every inch of the offensive zone." Now the league admits that the erstwhile fastest sport not requiring seat belts needs goals, not flow or scoring chances. "We're not [going to] throw defense to the birds," Campbell said, "but we have to reward offense. [Mike] Keane and [Brian] Skrudland [checking forwards on the 1999 Cup-winning Dallas Stars] were great, but do we want these guys to have the [upper hand]?"

As a goon might say, the gloves are off. In the past, Campbell admitted, the NHL went slowly for fear it would look foolish in revoking rule changes that didn't work. In a postlockout dreamworld, there will be streamlined goaltender equipment. There may be limitations on where a goalie can handle the puck, which theoretically would encourage forechecking and, thus, turnovers. The goal itself will be moved back two feet, to 11 feet from the end boards, creating more space in scoring areas. The blue lines may get wider, which, because of the offsides rule, effectively would add a few extra feet to the neutral zone. According to Campbell, a slim majority of the 30 teams favor shootouts after inconclusive overtime periods, a sop to paying customers that would spell the death of the tie. And, in the ultimate rebirth announcement, the NHL conceivably could also ditch the red line, aping college and international hockey.

Eliminating the red line would open the game to long stretch passes that would look spectacular on HDTV, which is where sports broadcasts are headed. (A recent study by the consulting group Strategy Analytics projected that by 2008 there will be 37 million American homes with high-def.) "Hockey shows better and more dramatically different than any other sport in HDTV," said Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports. "The ice jumps off the screen. I don't know if it's the totality of the whiteness, but it illuminates the room." NBC has a new two-year-deal (with two option years) for Saturday-afternoon hockey at a deep discount--no rights fees. Unable to command a significant price for its TV rights, the NHL, which has bounced from Fox to ABC to the Peacock in seven years, settled for sharing ad revenue. NBC, whose Arena Football League openers this year (2.1 rating) outdrew last winter's NHL All-Star Game (1.8), is on the hook only for production costs and the opportunity cost of network time, something that indeed might be spent more profitably.

Although televised hockey is a regional force in strong markets--the Colorado Avalanche outdrew the Rockies and the Nuggets last season on Fox Sports Net Rocky Mountain--it has been a cipher nationally in the ratings, which unfortunately for the NHL measure eyeballs and not the passion of hockey fans. After the NHL turned in a 0.2 rating on ESPN2 last season, the replacement programming on the cable channel, primarily college basketball, has been getting a 0.4.

Schanzer says NBC "will promote the NHL to best showcase the game." The network plans to marry Hockey Night in Canada'sice-level camera angles with U.S.-style narrative, a broadcast mix it hopes will create stars in an almost faceless league and intrigue nonpuckheads. NBC announcers have been instructed not to focus on the movement of the puck as much as the game's overarching themes. The network also will station an analyst between the benches to give viewers NASCAR pit-row-style access, allowing viewers a better look at players who might look better in new Reebok sweaters.

Yes, the NHL is also planning a fashion overhaul. Overwhelmed by vintage NBA and baseball jerseys in recent years, hockey sweaters are neither hip nor hop. Reebok is, however, upbeat. Last year it purchased The Hockey Company, which is the official manufacturer of NHL uniforms, and plans to roll out new sweaters in 2006. Although Reebok was unwilling to preview the unis for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, a league official who has seen prototypes describes them as "sleek, something that implies motion even at rest, like a ski racer's uniform or Spiderman's costume."

Of course. The only thing that might save the NHL is a superhero.

At this point the promise of more scoring, HDTV and slick sweaters might be nothing more than smearing lipstick on a pig. Since blowing its chance to join the national conversation with its ill-timed lockout a decade ago, the NHL has consigned itself to being an oversized mom-and-pop league until hell, or at least the continental U.S., freezes over. If everyone suddenly had to skate to work, hockey would no longer seem faintly exotic outside its immediate markets. This is the NHL's problem in most of the U.S.: Everyone who has ever been in phys-ed class has shot a basketball and played a form of baseball or football--organic sports in the American experience--but probably never has tried hockey. The NHL starts 50 lengths back.

Now, the arrival of another Wayne Gretzky might make up ground--phenom Sidney Crosby, a 17-year-old who through Sunday had 50 goals and 75 assists in 50 games with Rimouski in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, already has NBC abuzz--but even Gretzky wouldn't have been Gretzky in this overcoached era of constipated hockey. To assume the NHL, with the same players and same coaching staffs, can revert to the rollicking offense-minded days of 1985--86 (Ottawa's NHL-leading total of 262 goals last year would have ranked last in that 21-team league) is a reach beyond the powers of high-def.

Despite Dryden's admonition, the NHL has in the past had disturbingly loyal fans. Like holiday fruitcakes, they are hard to dispose of. After a 103-day lockout in 1994--95, attendance for the subsequent 48-game schedule improved by more than 1,000 fans per game over the previous season. Not even an alarming average ticket price--$43.60 last season--has been fatal. (In his worst public moment of the lockout, Bettman said last December that each franchise had to be free to set its own ticket prices. Salary cap, yes. Ticket cap, no.) Perhaps the loss of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second time in history--the 1919 final between Montreal and Seattle was canceled because of a flu epidemic--will cause a modicum of outrage, but certainly there has been little of the visceral fan anger that flared during the 1994 baseball strike. This surely represents apathy, unless you work for the NHL.

The good-news league reads it as implicit support for the disputatious Bettman, who, in the view of Ralph Mellanby, the former Hockey Night in Canada and Olympics producer, "is the guy who killed the game ... [because] he paid no attention to the product." In interviews conducted for the league by a Denver-based sports marketing firm, fans said they blame the players for the lockout and "will support the NHL in fixing the [labor] problem.... [The fans] will come back."

"By and large hockey has had its core audience, and that's it," Schanzer said. "Sports like baseball and basketball have a core audience, but they're able to attract so-called casual fans when aberrational events occur: McGwire-Sosa, the Cubs and Red Sox in the '03 playoffs, the Red Sox [winning the World Series] last year. Then when it goes back to the norm, you lose some of those fans. The adhesion is not as strong. In hockey's case the audience is strongly adhesive. When the sport comes back, the NHL is likely to face less [decline] than other sports."

Perhaps. But the NHL is now bobbing in unchartered waters--the league has already endured the longest in-season work stoppage in pro sports history. "Significant philosophical differences" have already maimed a league that wouldn't know John Locke from Bettman's Lockout, and suggests the eventual relaunch could determine its fate for generations. So which is it? Eternal ham-and-egg league or proud member of the Big Four? The NHL muffed a season. The Invisible League will have only one chance to score on the rebound. ■

"In a sense we have to say, 'Screw tradition,'" says COLIN CAMPBELL. "We don't want to sacrifice our heritage, but there are things we can do to make [the league] better."


Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Here Lieth Hockey




For older stars such as (from left) Chelios, Messier, Yzerman and MacInnis, the lost season could mean early retirement.