- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The 30-team NHL is threatening to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, taking its season, financial prospects and future with it.

Unlike major league baseball, the NFL and NBA, the NHL is waging its labor dispute without a safety net in the United States.

The NHL has gone away this season with nary a peep of frustration in the American press. It is as if the NHL merely rises to the relevance of the WUSA, the defunct women’s professional soccer league that passed away in silence.

The U.S. marketplace is the most unsettling element of the NHL standoff. Its indifference to the lockout should be sobering to both the owners and players.

No stop in play ever serves as a boon to a sports league. There is an inevitable drop in interest after the games start anew and a rush by league officials to rekindle the ardor that exists between the teams and their supporters.

A boyhood tug on the heart facilitates the healing process. It is a tug that eventually will be felt in the provinces of Canada, where hockey is the first sports love.

Yet the NHL, as it exists now, has staked its long-term growth in a foreign marketplace that, for the most part, lacks the game’s historical reference points that turn men into sentimentalists.

The Capitals remain a relative newcomer on the Washington sports landscape and thus historically incomplete. History is no small element to a game’s supporters. History, in part, drove the baseball process in D.C. It was a history that added to the passion in the debate.

The NHL has no such history or sway in all too many of its U.S. cities. The league has expanded well beyond its roots, and worse, to second-tier localities of questionable staying power. Its vision has not comported with the elementary facts.

Instead of strengthening what it had, the NHL spread its logo to ice-free regions with the conviction that it could foist its entertainment on the masses. Commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners ignored the bottom-line conclusions of television executives. The puck just does not translate well on a television screen, no matter how the game is packaged.

So now the owners are looking to salvage what they have wrought, and the players are not inclined to go along with a restructuring that will hit them in the pocketbook. In that regard, there is nothing novel in this lockout. What is different, and what should be disconcerting to both sides, is hockey’s precarious hold in the United States, excluding Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

If the Caps were never to return to Fun Street, most of Washington would yawn. This is no reflection on the game, a fine game that could make further inroads in the region as more and more residents grow up with it and even compete in leagues as youths.

That proposition, though, is somewhere in the distant future and hardly germane to the game’s reality today.

Of all the anti-baseball folks who held up Linda W. Cropp to be a heroine before she acquiesced to the mayor, the person with perhaps the most interest in wishing her well in private was Caps owner Ted Leonsis.

Otherwise, a baseball team is just one more entertainment option destined to gnaw on his profit-margin line. Leonsis has presided over a dynamic endemic to his franchise. His team’s fan base is dependable and loyal. Yet his team’s capacity to resonate beyond the diehard core remains elusive.

A lockout only makes the marketing assignment more daunting. It also alienates the team’s true believers, some inclined to throw up their hands in disgust.

Bettman and the board of governors meet next month to determine where the NHL is going this season, if anywhere, and talk again of making a deal that restores their enterprise to good health.

At this pace, the NHL may find it is creeping closer to Major League Soccer than to the big three of professional sports.

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