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Can NHL survive another lost season?

12/7/2012
Gary Bettman was as passionate as he's ever been addressing the media Thursday night. AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez

It was a question that brought out the most passionate response from Gary Bettman during a news conference that was as heated as any he has conducted as commissioner.

On a Thursday when talks between the NHL and the NHLPA completely imploded after coming so tantalizingly close to a conclusion, it became a reality that the Stanley Cup may not be awarded for the second time in eight seasons.

The league that had finally climbed back to prominence after losing an entire season in 2004-05 is once again teetering toward that cliff of irrelevance.

Bettman was asked to explain how he could justify it. How could the commissioner of any professional sports league justify losing two seasons in such a short timespan?

"First of all, lockouts and strikes are something that have taken place in all sports," he said, the microphone bouncing in front of him as he started his defense.

"My responsibility is the long-term health of this game and our franchises and our league and the fact of the matter is I find it almost incomprehensible that the 82-game save-the-season package wasn't accepted."

As he said it, he pointed his hand into his chest. More emphasis, more explanation. He said that a lack of continuity with the NHLPA leadership has hurt his ability to build a meaningful working relationship between the two sides over the years.

He argued that the game has gotten healthier in the past decade with average salaries climbing from $1.4 million to $2.4 million for the players, with off-ice perks such as additional coaches, trainers, masseuses, first-class hotels -- all elevated since the last lockout.

These things come with costs, he explained. And his fight is for a system that can continue to provide it, even if comes at the expense of getting a deal done in the short term. And potentially another lost season.

"Am I unhappy about the prospect? You bet I am. OK? It absolutely is something that torments me," he said. "By the same token, I have a long-term responsibility to this game and to the fans of this game to make sure we have a healthy product."

The words seemed surreal because they came on the same day that NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr suggested that the two sides were on "a road to a quick end to this dispute." That was before the voicemail from Bill Daly to Fehr's brother, Steve, rejected the latest proposal from the players, pulling offers off the table in the process.

For fans following the play-by-play of the week's events it was a huge blow to their emotions. From talks of a Christmas Day season opener to a commissioner justifying the possibility of another lost year in a 48-hour span.

On Thursday morning, an NHL source offered a bit of advice that might provide some solace to those left holding out hope.

"All major negotiations are emotional roller-coaster rides," he said. "Let it play out."

Nobody knows for sure how this will play out. Decertification will again be debated among the players with some agents already pushing the idea. But if you take a step back, away from the heated comments coming from two frustrated sides, you see the real progress made this week.

•The players moved their offer up to an eight-year CBA agreement with an opt-out option after six. The owners want a 10-year CBA, with an opt-out at eight.

•The owners upped their make-whole offer to $300 million, an offer Bettman says is now off the table. They also backed off free agency and arbitration demands.

•The players proposed an eight-year maximum length on contracts, while the owners seem hell-bent on keeping it at five years.

•And the revenue split continues to be agreed upon at 50-50 with the make-whole provision providing a gradual move there.

Yes, emotions were high Thursday and offers were pulled off the table. But are both sides really willing to lose a season over those differences? Considering there's still weeks of negotiating to be had while still rescuing a 48-game season, probably not.

If so, then the next debate becomes whether the NHL can actually survive another lost season.

In negotiating this deal, Bettman said he has been charged with protecting the game's long-term health. Logic suggests that a cycle of missing huge chunks of games every time a CBA expires isn't the best way to do it.

Dr. Phil Miller, a professor of sports and labor economics at Minnesota State University, used that kind of logic when he analyzed the financial impact of another lost season in the NHL.

"Part of running sports is you're trying to addict people to your product," he said. "It's clear, sports is like an addiction ... it's something about getting a person invested. Every eight years, we've given a chance for hockey fans to go into detox."

That's damaging. Fans in Los Angeles, riding the high that comes with winning a Stanley Cup, have had plenty of time for detox. Fans in Minnesota, worked up over the signing of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, have had time to detox. Same goes for Rangers fans who had visions of a long playoff run the moment Rick Nash was acquired.

The NHL has given another "addiction" like football or basketball a chance to recapture the hockey fan.

That's the emotional response. How about the hard numbers?

There's no data to mine on fans' response after losing two complete seasons in eight years because no league and players union have been dumb enough to do it. As this stretches on, we'll hear of more and more fans swearing off hockey in response to the hard-headedness.

It might not matter. Economist Dennis Coates, professor of economics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, predicts that those fans would only have a marginal impact on long-term revenues. He predicts the response of a lost season will look awfully similar to the last one, which is to say the league will recover just fine.

That's a scary thought for those hoping for a deal soon.

"One way to think about it is that they're not cumulative," said Coates. "The clubs realize, 'They all came back almost instantaneously when we started up. That's what they're going to do again.'"

He predicts struggles in non-traditional markets such as Phoenix, Florida and others, but would expect the major franchises accountable for a bulk of the league's revenues would continue to produce.

"For every one of those guys who says I'm not going back who actually carries through with it, there's another guy who goes 'You know what? I can get season tickets now,'" he said.

It's only a theory because nobody knows for sure how this will play out if another year is lost. It seems unfathomable that it's even a possibility considering the health of the game before the lockout kicked in, coming off a season with record revenues and neither side demanding huge systematic changes.

But here we are, both sides digging in. The commissioner is gambling that the system he's fighting for will ultimately lead to a healthier NHL. That's assuming the two sides don't kill the product to get there.