The National Hockey League skated along the edge of a cliff eight years ago and lived to talk about it. The league is in self-destruct mode again, and it may not survive the loss of another season.
Players have been locked out since Sept. 15, when the collective bargaining agreement with owners expired. Talks between the NHL and the players’ association, including revenue sharing, resumed this week.
Many players have left North America to play in Europe, Russia, and elsewhere. Even if a settlement were reached today, there wouldn’t be any NHL games until at least December.
The Winter Classic game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, scheduled for New Year’s Day at the University of Michigan’s Big House, was canceled this month. The game was expected to draw more than 100,000 people — the largest crowd ever to attend a hockey game.
Money is the issue, just as it was eight years ago. In 2004, owners wanted a salary cap and a 24 percent pay cut for players. They got what they wanted, but it cost a whole season.
The lost season cost owners and players a lot of money. It hurt hockey’s reputation and drove away fans. The league rebounded because of major changes in the game to lift fan interest.
Now, owners want to reduce the players’ share of revenues again. Their initial offer was a 24 percent cut, from 57 percent to 43 percent. Later, they softened their demand to a 50-50 split. Players appear willing to accept 52 percent.
Owners also want to defer payments for current contracts. Paying players later would save team owners a lot of money, and cost the players involved a bundle.
The problem is that owners vying for top players agreed to big contracts that they now say they can’t afford, even though NHL hockey revenues have increased by more than 50 percent.
Hard-core fans aren’t at risk. They will come back. But there aren’t that many rabid hockey fans in the Sun Belt, where many teams now are located.
Losing a whole season could cost the league the casual fans it has worked so hard to woo. Those fans are especially important in places such as Dallas and Atlanta, where teams without storied hockey traditions depend on them.
Hockey already is the weakest of the major American sports leagues. Owners and players need to be careful they don’t make the league irrelevant.