Gambling on ice


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.