Don't look now, but there's no hockey. The season was supposed to have started last week in Washington and 29 other North American cities. But it didn't. The NHL has vanished. It's disappeared. Gone. Poof. There's no hockey now. There may not be any hockey all season. Who knows when hockey will ever come back? It's like a black hole materialized and sucked in hockey. (Why couldn't this have happened to "Cats?")
Tell the truth:
Have you even noticed?
Okay, even if hockey were being played, it would be hard for the league to get much notice with the baseball playoffs going on, and the NFL under full steam. But the Washington Capitals were a Big Deal in this city for a long time. They're one of the sports anchors here: the Redskins, the Wizards, the Caps. Maybe they never won the Stanley Cup, but they got to the finals in 1998. The last time the Redskins got to the Super Bowl was 1992. The last time the Wizards actually won a playoff game was 1988. By comparison, the Caps are a dynasty.
But the Caps go out and nobody seems to notice. If there was a strike or a lockout in football, folks would be foaming, fuming and fussing about it. There would be editorials in the newspapers. TV camera crews would be all over town checking the pulse of angry fans. The same with baseball. My gosh, the last time there was a baseball strike, people wanted to throw players in jail for tearing the fabric of America. You take football and baseball off the shelves and there'll be arguments at every water cooler in America over who's more greedy, the players or the owners.
But hockey goes out, and, um, what? Tony, did you say something?
Yes, I said there was no hockey. No standings in the paper. No schedule of upcoming games. No leaders in goals and assists. Nothing. Thirty teams. Gone. Erased. Not even a forwarding address for Olie Kolzig.
Really? Well, how 'bout them Expos, then?
It's amazing what's happened with hockey. Just 10 years ago, when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, the NHL appeared to be on the verge of overtaking the NBA. Much was made about how great the NHL game was in person (and it is the best in-the-arena sport to watch; a playoff hockey game, in person, is more exciting than anything the NFL, NBA or baseball has to offer), and that more women went to NHL games than went to baseball, football or basketball games. There was a sense of vogue about going to a hockey game; the NHL had a hip, multinational, Next Big Thing feel. Its jerseys were selling like wild among kids. All the trends were spiking up. And now? A sinkhole. More people are talking about the cable slapfest between Tucker Carlson and Jon Stewart than are talking about hockey.
TV ratings are dreadful; they are about one-tenth of NFL ratings. As good as the product is in the arena, you never sense the speed or the rush on TV. The old guard stars -- Gretzky, Lemieux, Messier -- are either retired or hanging on by old, brittle fingernails. Who are the new stars? Who are the charismatic players? Eric Lindros's body betrayed him; ditto, Jaromir Jagr's attitude. The NHL expanded to cities that had no history of snow, let alone hockey. How deep can the roots be for hockey in Phoenix, Nashville, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Dallas, Raleigh and Atlanta? (How deep can the roots be in San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Washington, for that matter? Outside the Northeast and the upper Midwest, how many U.S. fathers passed hockey down to their sons? This ain't baseball. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it ain't even ours.) Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, says the league will be back stronger than ever, and says there won't be any contraction. But the league seems bloated at 30 teams, doesn't it?
Neither the players nor the owners appear to feel any urgency to get back to work yet. One general manager recently told me he doesn't expect the NHL to resume at all this season. Many of the players have signed on in Europe. And, since nearly half the NHL is from Europe to begin with, those guys are home. What makes anyone sure all the Europeans will want to come back here? Okay, money will probably turn their heads. But where is the tipping point? When do the players begin to panic that there won't be a 30-team league to come back to, that the golden goose is dead? When do the owners begin to panic that the arenas are empty night after night, and the franchise they paid hundreds of millions of dollars for is turning into a worthless husk? After a year, why wouldn't a sharp guy start a new, streamlined hockey league in the U.S. and Canada, and try to sign the best 100 North American players and rent time in those unused arenas?
Everybody in the NHL assumes the NHL will be back. But if I ran the league, I'd be shaking in my shoes that nobody seems to notice it's gone away.