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William Gileda

NHL Isn't Big Enough to Have 30 Teams

By William Gildea
Monday, September 6, 2004; Page D01

Hockey winters are meant to be cold, but there are signs that this winter will be colder than usual. And we're not talking about the weather.

In case you didn't notice, the time to play hockey is nearing -- but there may be no hockey. In fact, there's a good chance there won't be a season -- or at least not one that starts on time. This Labor Day brings little to celebrate about the sport. The NHL and the players association are at a labor impasse. Without a bargaining breakthrough that no one anticipates, the owners will lock out the players when the current collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15. Hockeytown hushed?


"I have always maintained that we have a great, loyal group of fans -- we just don't have enough of them," Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. (Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)

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There's precedent for something like this. If baseball can cancel a World Series, the NHL can put the Stanley Cup under wraps.

But maybe this impending work stoppage is not such a bad thing. Of the major sports, hockey is the most in need of a makeover. If it takes a long time for the NHL to straighten itself out, so be it, although it's unlikely that the league will consider fixing what needs fixing the most.

The season is far too long. There's only one thing crazier than hockey in June and that's hockey in June in Florida.

There are too many teams, especially in southern outposts far removed from where hockey has always thrived. The NHL has made the mistake of pulling up from its roots, trying to make itself a national U.S. sport. It isn't. It's a regional sport. Only in certain areas do people care about hockey with genuine passion. In other places it's a hard sell. There are 30 NHL franchises. There are too many.

A more streamlined product certainly would be more appealing. It's a huge problem for owners trying to appeal to people in areas where they can take or leave hockey, places unlike Detroit, Montreal, Toronto, Philadelphia and some others where the game matters so much.

A certain number of people in Washington care deeply about hockey. The Capitals have built some history: They've put a couple of players in the Hall of Fame and made the Stanley Cup finals. They've played many memorable games. But the team has been losing money for years. Hockey clearly is not life and death, yet people here have never been known to ignore an entertaining product.

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, in an e-mail responding to questions about the state of the labor talks (prefacing his remarks by saying he could speak only for himself and not the NHL, the players or the union), said he was "very cognizant of the effect the negotiation will have on our fan-base here in D.C. I have always maintained that we have a great, loyal group of fans -- we just don't have enough of them -- and our main focus has always been on keeping the fan base loyal while expanding to the masses."

But hockey may not be a sport of the masses, in this market or a lot of others. As Leonsis pointed out in his e-mail, "The Caps now have had losses for more than 10 straight years." And he wasn't referring to wins and losses. But the franchise has worked here in the past and can in the future.

Several things need to happen if MCI Center is to be filled on a regular basis for hockey. No delay or only a brief delay to the season; successful marketing; most important, the kind of team the owner now envisions (after spending far too much money on the likes of Jaromir Jagr, who held no appeal whatsoever to the marginal fan, and with whom the team declined).

"We will do our best to rebuild our team through the draft and astute trades," Leonsis said. "I am hopeful that we can efficiently craft a team that is exciting -- plays hard and with joy -- and allows the fan base to fall in love with them."

If only he could make that come true. Yet unless the Capitals become a "must-see" team quickly, there's little incentive for average fans to turn out to see opposing teams that don't quicken the pulse. With due respect to Tampa Bay's success, and taking into account Leonsis's forecast that Atlanta "will be considered the next great young team," the Capitals have been stuck in the wrong division. Fans have been deprived of the Caps' natural rivalries in previous division alignments. Could there possibly be a long-range future for the NHL in something called the Southeast Division?

Television money could make a world of difference for hockey, but it's not there because TV ratings are so awful. The sport defies the medium; on TV it's hard to see the puck, follow the flow of the game or appreciate the game's essence -- speed. Leonsis himself said, "We have a great game -- live."

Agreed, it's a beautiful game, at its best, so different from other sports. It's the feel of it: the ice, the scrape of the skates, the slap of the shot, the equipment, the uniforms of certain teams, like those of the Habs or the Red Wings, of seeing your breath as you're walking toward the arena. It's a winter game. In some places now, you need sunblock for the walk from the parking lot to the building.

These bargaining sessions, though, are not about romance but bleak reality. Most of the owners have to get more fans in the stands -- and they intend to put the brakes on salaries. "A rule of thumb in sports and hockey," Leonsis said, "is to have ticket sales equate to payroll."

The owners are adamant about installing a salary cap, the players naturally are opposed. The owners want a deal to their liking, and they are willing to wait out the players. "The Caps will lose less money by not playing than by playing," Leonsis said.

The two sides will agree sooner or later, and the result will be helpful to owners. But I don't think the NHL will ever be able to fill all the seats of 30 franchises spread across the map. If hockey has to live within its means, part of that involves playing the game in places where people have traditionally appreciated it. I don't expect every game to be the equivalent of "Hockey Night in Canada," but the NHL has let its game stray too far from home.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company