The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 25, 2012

Our View: NHL takes a step backward

The Free Press

— Fans don’t understand, nor do they appreciate game-stopping squabbles by successful professional sports leagues. Why should they? At a time when the National Football League stands as the richest product in pro sports, its referees are being kept off the field because of an unnecessary contract stalemate. In other words, a league that has money flying out of its pockets refuses to share the wealth with those who keep the game honest.

Meanwhile, the National Hockey Association, not quite as successful as the NFL but coming off a record $3.3 billion in revenues last season, seems determined to take a giant step backward with a labor lockout that has already led to the cancellation of all 61 preseason games through the remainder of this month.

Commissioner Gary Bettman delivered another shot across the bow last weekend, allowing rumors to surface that he was preparing to cancel the Winter Classic to put an exclamation point on his determination to win at all costs. The Classic is a significant NHL attraction, and the possibility of it being canceled indicates that the NHL is in no mood to negotiate.

Meanwhile, NHL players are already lining up opportunities for themselves in other leagues, further damaging the prestige of the NHL brand.

What is it about success that leads to strikes and lockouts? Why does it that appear that the more flush with revenues professional sports leagues become, the more they’re likely to bicker? Pro baseball, football, basketball and hockey have all cannibalized themselves over revenue shares in the past, and obviously, it continues today.

It’s a shame. One might understand some unhappiness when leagues are struggling. But when the plates should be full, events like the one occurring in the NHL are harder to justify.

To Minnesotans, the NHL lockout is doubly frustrating. Minnesota is a hockey haven, and the Minnesota Wild — a franchise that has struggled to win games in recent years — energized a loyal fan base with off-season free agent signings of stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

When will we get to see what the Parise and Suter deals have wrought? Who knows?

Apart from on-ice issues, there is the economic issue. No NHL means lost sales tax revenue, job losses for hundreds of people (not just players) connected with the team, and hard times for bars and shops that depend on hockey.

Insiders tell us that Bettman is playing a game of his own. He remembers that after the 2004-2005 dispute resulted in an entire season being lost, the fans returned. He expects them to return again, and his gambit is that the players will ultimately cave just as they did then.

But the players remember 2004-2005, too. They know that if they make it a habit to capitulate, the league will become even tougher on them in the future.

That may lead to a longer work stoppage in 2012. And all bets are off for the fans, who may just decide they’ve learned something, too.