US Sports: Ice hockey heading for big freeze

 

 

This is a wonderful time of year for American sport. With the first really warm days of spring, the baseball season is starting to roll. Despite the legal distractions of Kobe Bryant and the clashes of mighty egos, the superstars of the LA Lakers are finally getting it together in the NBA play-offs. Best of all, for those of us addicted to one-inch thick chunks of frozen vulcanised rubber whizzing around a sheet of ice at 100mph or more, we have the hockey play-offs. But our feelings are bitter sweet.

The sweet part is that Tampa Bay Lightning, at the time of writing a game up in their Eastern Conference final against Philadelphia Flyers, are poised to reach the Stanley Cup finals. Hockey (they dispense with the "ice" bit in these parts) has always been a game of northern North America, spreading down from the Canadian tundra to cities such as Boston, Detroit and Chicago.

Not only are the upstart Lightning playing the most exciting hockey in the league, with a nimble all-rink game that puts to shame the stifling defensive style that is the vogue in the NHL. They're proving that hockey can flourish anywhere, even amid the Florida palm trees and muggy 90-degree heat. Everyone wants Lightning to win the Stanley Cup. If they do it would be the geographical equivalent of a bunch of seal trappers from Nome, Alaska, winning the World Series.

The bad news, however, is that these could be the last play-offs for a while. With that glacier-like inevitability that marks labour relations in the big American pro sports, hockey - like baseball a decade ago - is heading for a long, long stoppage. Technically, it will probably be a "lock-out" (when the owners pull the plug) rather than a strike by the players.

Either way, however, the betting is that most or all of next season will be lost, and conceivably the one after that. The players' union has a strike war chest of $100m [£56.4m], and various leading lights of the NHL have already made plans to play in Europe next season.

The problem is that hockey has been living beyond its means for years. In the 2002/2003 season, accordingto a report by the former Securities and Exchange Commission president, Arthur Levitt, the 30 NHL teams lost $273m [£154m] between them. Hockey is the poor relation of major league American sports, yet the average player now makes $1.8m [£1m] per year. Thus 75 per cent of NHL franchise revenues go on wages, compared to 55 per cent in basketball. The average game ticket now costs $55 [£31], double that of baseball and just too expensive for the blue-collar fans who are hockey's traditional lifeblood.

Something, obviously, has to give. The owners want team salary caps. Alas, just like their baseball equivalents in 1994, the players insist this notion violates every free market principle they hold dear. So both sides are hunkering down. What will be left when the coming ice age passes, is anyone's guess.

Not only has hockey lived beyond its means, but a headlong expansion in the past couple of decades has resulted in too many teams for the sport's existing fan base. If there is a strike, some franchises will fold - among them, possibly, the Capitals here in Washington.

The owner of the Caps, Ted Leonsis, invested in the likes of Jaromir Jagr, touted as the best player in the game, to turn the team into a contender for the Stanley Cup. Instead they bombed. To cut salary costs, the Caps dumped Jagr and other under-performing stars, but will still lose more than $20m [£11m] this year.

Worse still, a stoppage will almost certainly speed hockey's downward spiral. This is a sport you'll never get hooked on by watching it on television - where the hell is the puck? To appreciate it, you have to go and see a game live. Hockey at its highest level combines jet-paced skill, grace and guts (and crunching thuggery) in a way that you find nowhere else.

But no live hockey means no new fans. The NHL is on the brink. For the time being, however, may Lightning win the Stanley Cup.

Major league baseball, meanwhile, has demonstrated anew its astounding ability to get the worst of all worlds. A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that for two days in June, the bases at MLB games would bear the logo of the new Spiderman movie. A perfect stunt to spread the gospel of baseball among children and teenagers, reasoned the fine minds who run the national pastime. The advertisements, moreover, would be clearly visible to TV viewers, but spectators at the ballpark would hardly be able to make out a sign, just a few inches across.

After all these years, MLB's marketing people should have learnt that where baseball and its fans are concerned, normal patterns of human behaviour do not apply. America may be the most commercially driven country on earth, with sports no exception. This year the jockeys in the Kentucky Derby won the right to wear ads on their silks. Since time immemorial, big league baseball stadia have been festooned with adverts, some of them elaborately recreated in the "retro-style" ballparks that are all the rage these days.

But Spiderman 2 on those pristine white bases? No way. A collective roar of disapproval was heard across the land: Is nothing sacred, is no corner of the land of the free, free from crass commercialisation? Even Ralph Nader, the presidential candidate, got in on the act.

Within days, MLB had abjectly climbed down, scrapping the adverts on the bases (even though the offending logo will remain in the on-deck circles, where the next batter up awaits his turn). The whole flap moreover was about next to nothing. Each team would have made a mere $50,000 [£28,000] from the promotion - about as much as Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees' third baseman and baseball's most richly rewarded star, is paid for each single game.

But Europeans should not cast stones. American team uniforms at least, in baseball and other sports, are models of purity. Here, they persist in that quaint habit of actually identifying by name the team to which the player belongs. "That David Beckham," a friend asked when I raised the matter recently, "Didn't he just get transferred from Vodafone to Siemens?"

Here in Washington, baseball enthusiasts have other things on their minds.

Will the capital at last regain the baseball franchise lost in 1971, when the much lamented Senators of the American League decamped to become the Texas Rangers? Yet again, the city fathers have been meeting MLB executives about the relocation of the money-losing Montreal Expos of the National League. For years, Washington has been the leading candidate, but Peter Angelos, the powerful owner of the Baltimore Orioles 40 miles up the road, has always vetoed such a move, arguing that the region cannot support two teams. This time, however, the talks between the DC government (which has to find $350m [£197m] or more for a new stadium as part of a deal) and the men from MLB sounded genuinely hopeful. Probably, raised hopes will once again be dashed.

But who knows, maybe an amended version of the old joke about Washington will again ring around the nation: "First in peace, first in war, but last in the National League."

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