Ice hockey: NHL's future on thin ice as decision day arrives in wage war

Pay dispute could see no ice hockey in North America for first time in 88 years.

So this, finally, is it. Miracles do happen, but even divine intervention may not suffice if the National Hockey League is to avoid the previously unthinkable - the first-ever loss by a US sport of an entire season as a result of a labour dispute.

So this, finally, is it. Miracles do happen, but even divine intervention may not suffice if the National Hockey League is to avoid the previously unthinkable - the first-ever loss by a US sport of an entire season as a result of a labour dispute.

Unless representatives of the team owners and the players' union managed to reach an improbable bargain that is precisely what Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, will announce at a press conference in New York at 1pm today. And if this dismal scenario unfolds as expected, he may well also be announcing the demise of the world's premier ice hockey league in its present form.

In a sense, the commissioner will be acknowledging the inevitable. Since the NHL locked out the players last September in its bid to impose a salary cap, 824 of the scheduled 1,230 games in the 2004/2005 season have already been lost. Even with a deal in extremis, the most that could be salvaged would be a regular season of 28 (instead of 82) games, followed by play-offs squeezed in by the end of June.

But long before the training camps were shut 154 days ago, it was plain the league was facing a crisis unprecedented in its 88-year history. It is a crisis not just of money, but of the way the sport is played.

The financial débâcle is simply stated. Only 11 of the 30 NHL teams are profitable. Their combined losses last year topped $270m (£143m), on total revenue of $2bn. At least two teams, in Ottawa and Buffalo, have brushed with bankruptcy. Some franchises lose less by not playing hockey than playing it. Plainly something has to be done.

For owners, the mantra has been "cost certainty," in other words a "hard" salary cap tied to total revenue. At present three out of every four dollars a team earns - in ticket sales, product franchising, concessions, TV rights and so on - goes in players' wages. The owners want to cut that proportion to roughly one dollar in two.

Predictably, the players have had none of it. The average NHL salary has tripled in a decade to $1.8m - so why kill the golden goose? The fault, the union argues, lies not with greedy players but with irresponsible owners, recklessly outbidding each other to buy success. Even so the players have made notable concessions, including a one-year salary cut of 24 per cent.

Originally, it seemed the season would be scrubbed last month. Then Bettman set an "irrevocable" deadline of last weekend. A federal mediator was called in, and as the two sides exchanged last-minute offers, the clock was stopped at midnight. In this last negotiating flurry, both sides have made notable concessions; the unions have accepted the notion of a salary cap, the owners have dropped their insistence on a rigid link between revenue and wages. But, it appears, too little and too late. Early yesterday, the talks broke down yet again. Cancellation looms - and, possibly, much worse besides.

Up to a point, ice hockey's problems resemble those which forced the 1994/95 baseball strike, a familiar confrontation between billionaire owners and millionaire players, with little public sympathy for either side. But the similarities stop there. Baseball might be the most ineptly managed sport, but the game is an American institution for which everything is forgiven. Not so ice hockey.

It may be Canada's national sport, but only six of the 30 NHL franchises are in Canada. The rest are in the United States, several of them recently and precariously implanted in southern cities where ice is just something you put in your margherita.

Indeed, only in name is ice hockey a major league sport in the US, to be mentioned in the same breath as the big three of American football, baseball and basketball. Generously, ice hockey was counted as a fourth, thanks to the veneration accorded the Stanley Cup (named after a 19th-century governor-general of Canada and the oldest professional sports trophy in the US) and the vigorous expansion of the NHL since Bettman became commissioner in 1993.

But quantity has not meant quality, as the on-ice product for spectators has deteriorated. Despite an influx of European talent from behind the old Iron Curtain, no superstars have emerged to replace the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Defences are stifling, goals have dried up, and the best fans could hope for was a good brawl. As Jay Leno recently joked on NBC's Tonight Show: "If you want to see white guys with no teeth fighting on TV, you now have to tune into The Jerry Springer Show." Even before the stoppage, ice hockey's TV ratings were tumbling, and its latest two-year deal with NBC is said to have been worth just $300m, a pittance compared with the multi-billion deals of the NFL and the NBA. Worse still, fewer and fewer people care.

A recent poll by the ESPN sports network found that only 23 per cent of its viewers - sports fans all - missed the NHL. Another poll ranked ice hockey only 11th among the most popular US sports, behind the likes of wrestling and the World Series of Poker. Small wonder the dispute between ice hockey players and owners brings to mind deckchairs and doomed transatlantic liners. For this reason above all, a tiny sliver of hope remained yesterday that a deal could be conjured up.

But if not? Assuming this season is gone, then why not 2005/2006, or even 2006/2007 as well? The owners have prepared for this lock-out for a long time. Some say they will now go for broke and open training camps next September to non-union players, in a bid to break the unions once and for all. Some players muse of setting up their own league.

One way and another, ice hockey in North America may not be the same again. Some newer teams, with a fragile fan base at the best of times, may simply close down. A leaner, poorer but more authentic NHL could emerge, confined to its Canadian and north eastern heartland - Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal of course, and cities like Boston and Detroit where the sport is part of popular culture. Such are the stakes when Bettman speaks today.

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