- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

The NHL is back — with an asterisk.

This comeback season is a rebuilding year, one for re-evaluation and reflection.

Since professional hockey took 16 months off to find itself after the 2003-04 season, it has been replaced by major sports like poker, billiards, bowling and beach volleyball.

These are sports, or whatever they are, with major television contracts. They have carved out a niche. They are, to some degree, relevant.

Hockey, meanwhile, is struggling for relevance in America. The sport isn’t dead yet, but it shouldn’t make any long-term plans.

Dumped by ESPN thanks to the poker craze, the NHL begins this season on OLN, previously notable only for the Tour de France.

It begins the season in minor league cities like Columbus, Raleigh and Nashville and hockey hotbeds like Miami and Atlanta.

And it begins the season with a bunch of new rules designed to increase scoring because the game had become so unwatchable.

This is where the NHL is, and it doesn’t look good.

But it wasn’t always this way. The NHL peaked in popularity during the 1980s.

Wayne Gretzky was a transcendent player. He gave the game space and grace. He led the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cup titles and led his quaint little sport into the big time.

When Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, hockey had arrived. Imagine a skinny kid from Brantford, Ontario, playing host to something as American as “Saturday Night Live.”

The league experienced another bump in 1994, when Mark Messier led the New York Rangers to their first Stanley Cup title since 1940.

The NHL was feeling good. And just like every other sports league that gets into a zone, it became full of itself and killed the golden goose.

The NHL was big business, moving from cities like Winnipeg and Quebec City to San Jose and Phoenix.

And now there are 30 NHL teams. There aren’t 30 major sports markets in North America. Not for the NBA or baseball and certainly not for the NHL.

For better or worse, the NFL has been America’s sport of record for some time. Among the contenders, NASCAR and golf are the most compelling.

What they all have in common is a straightforward schedule tailored to the average sports fan. They play only on the weekends, usually Sunday — this country’s holy day for sports.

The average sports fan has a wife and kids and doesn’t have time for 10 fantasy leagues, thank goodness. During the week, they grind it out. On the weekend, they are ready for some ritualistic sports.

Baseball, the NBA and the NHL require more energy to follow.

Hockey could make a comeback. But it won’t be a big, splashy one like Elvis in 1968. It will have to be more of a scaled-down, independent thing like Johnny Cash in the 1990s.

The NHL should go back to its roots.

The rule changes might help. If wunderkinds Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are the real deal, that would help even more.

More than anything, a sport needs stars. Golf became relevant again after 15 years in the rough when Tiger Woods came along.

But the NHL also should scale back to about 20 teams, making sure about half of them are in Canada. It’s a cold weather sport. Stop trying to sell to every yuppie and retiree south of the Mason-Dixon.

Contraction would be a tricky proposition for any sport. It would mean admitting defeat. But that’s what rebuilding years are all about.

Of course, hockey should look at the bright side. At least it’s not the WNBA.

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