There was no hint of the NHL's troubles as the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrated the 12-year-old franchise's first Stanley Cup championship Monday night. But the jubilation at the St. Pete Times Forum belied the uncertain future the game faces as it flirts with a potentially crippling work stoppage.
The Lightning's gripping 2-1 victory over the Calgary Flames in Game 7 of the finals could have been the NHL's last meaningful game for a while. At the conclusion of the game, Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman embraced at center ice before Bettman handed the Stanley Cup to Andreychuk, who had waited 22 seasons to hoist the Cup. Whether he returns for a 23rd may depend on the outcome of the stalled labor negotiations between the league and the NHL Players Association.
"I am going to savor this moment . . . then I will make a decision," Andreychuk said. "I am going to wait and see what happens."
The collective bargaining agreement between the league and union expires Sept. 15. Recent negotiating sessions between Bettman and players' union head Bob Goodenow yielded no substantial progress toward a new deal. Many teams, meantime, have begun laying off staff in anticipation of an owners' lockout that could wipe out some, if not all, of next season.
Agents, team owners and others around the league said they believe the negotiations probably will not intensify until about a month prior to the contract's expiration.
The league owners, saying they are collectively losing upwards of $300 million a season, want the union to agree to a limit on player salaries of about $31 million per team. The union strongly opposes a salary cap, arguing that it would prevent players from getting top-dollar for their services. The union has instead proposed a luxury tax -- a system in which teams that exceed a certain payroll limit are penalized financially -- and other revenue sharing mechanisms to restrain salary costs.
It may take the pressure of an impending deadline, the possibility of cancelled games and missed paychecks before there is movement by the two sides, according to people in and around the game. The league's 30 teams and the players' union have put aside money in anticipation of a stoppage in play.
"These negotiations are not just about next season," Bettman said. "It is next season and all the ones that follow. It's about the future of our game."
The looming labor strife couldn't come at a worse time for the NHL. Despite a seven-game final that produced some great hockey, having Tampa Bay and Calgary -- two little-known teams from small markets -- didn't help the NHL's television ratings in the United States. Monday's Game 7 broadcast by ABC earned a 4.2 rating, according to Nielsen Media Research, meaning 4.5 million households -- or about 6.3 million viewers -- watched Tampa Bay win the Cup. It was the seventh-highest rated show of the evening. In all, this year's finals were among the lowest-rated Stanley Cups ever and the lowest since 1995.
Last year's Game 7 between the Anaheim Ducks and New Jersey Devils earned a 4.6 rating. The Ducks-Devils series averaged a 2.4 rating compared to this year's 2.2 average. Both seven-game series included two games televised on ESPN and five games on ABC.
The NHL recently signed new television contracts with NBC and ESPN. NBC won't pay the NHL any upfront rights fee -- a substantial departure from traditional sports television deals -- but will instead share revenue from commercials and other sources with the league.
Tampa Bay fans interviewed outside of the St. Pete Times Forum in the hours after the game Monday night said they, too, expect a work stoppage. Some said they may not return to the rink when hockey resumes. Compassion for wealthy athletes and even wealthier owners was scarce.
"I like hockey," said Kirk Young, 38, a Lightning season ticket holder. "I hope they work it out. But if they don't, we'll just go drink somewhere else."
Said John Cameron, 34, who has been a Lightning season ticket holder for 12 years: "It's kind of bittersweet right now. It could be a long time before the Lightning gets back here. There's definitely going to be a lockout, from everything I've heard. That's disappointing. You shouldn't feel that way on the night your team wins the Cup. [But] if hockey goes away, there's other things to do in Tampa."
Tampa Bay has lost $50 million in the past four years, according to team officials. The Lightning has a payroll of $35 million, which is in the bottom half of the league. The team has had trouble drawing fans during the regular season, although it saw a rapid spike in attendance during last year's playoffs, in which it got knocked out in the second round, and again during this year's Stanley Cup victory run.