It was twenty-five years ago this week, on tape delay, that the world witnessed perhaps the greatest moment in the history of hockey when a young squad of talented American college players, led by a gruff but determined coach, upset the heavily-favored Red Army squad from the Soviet Union and vaulted themselves into the Olympic finals, where they easily beat Finland to take the gold. The “Miracle On Ice,” as the win against the Soviets was later to be named thanks to Al Michael’s call in the final seconds, united a nation trying to pick itself up after a decade of indifference and, in the same moment, captured the glory of the game itself. If that was the pinnacle of hockey, the low point came last week, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman took the podium in New York City and announced the cancellation of a major professional sport season for the first time in history.
Thus, the day came that was both expected and feared and, consequently, the National Hockey League, for all intent and purpose, is dead. Whether the two sides can reach an agreement before the start of the next scheduled season is no longer of significance. The NHL got greedy trying to establish itself as the number one sport on the planet and did nothing except to force itself into financial ruin. Expansion tried to force teams into markets that just weren’t there and had the negative effect of watering down the talent. Player salaries escalated to the point that they were forcing some teams into bankruptcy, yet many league owners were either unwilling or unable to police themselves and the players were enjoying the wealth too much to care about the league’s financial distress. The money that was expected to come in the form of a television contract, like the major networks and the National Football League had negotiated, never materialized and the debt mounted.
Knowing that it would be vehemently opposed by the players union, the owners nevertheless tried to force the institution of a salary cap and locked out the players before the new season had a chance to be. With time enough to try and hammer out a deal that would save the season, the two sides inside dug in their heels and refused to come to the table, wagging fingers at each other and blaming the other for the mess that had been created. As the point of no return approached, the players suddenly decided to try and hammer out a figure with the owners, but the two sides still could not come to an accord. It was a difference of mere millions, but neither side wanted to surrender more than a few minor concessions. In the end, the league made the only, if imprudent, choice left; it pulled the plug on itself and, in the process, further.
It remains to be seen how far the ripple effect of these actions will be felt across North America. Who’s to say that the effects won’t spill over into minor league hockey, where leagues like the American Hockey League have seen attendance drop this season despite having some NHL talent among its ranks? Will high school and college hockey suffer the same fate if these boys, who have practiced diligently for years to perfect their skills, suddenly realize that there’s no reward for all that hard work?
Hopefully, Major League Baseball owners and players have watched and learned from the mistakes that their brethren in the NHL made. It isn’t difficult to imagine that this same scenario could play itself out in another couple of years when the current collective bargaining agreement expires. Despite the general feeling from the owners that the economic playing field needs to be leveled, several once more threw money around to players this off-season, signing several second and third-rate players to sizeable, long-term deals. As has been pointed out before in this column, the lack of parity outside of the big-market venues is slowly sucking life out of the league, evident by the half-empty baseball stadiums and abysmal television ratings. The last thing that Major League Baseball needs is to mirror the failed efforts of the NHL; instead, the owners and the players, who both have a vested interest in the success of the league, must find common ground together to create a balanced package that will be beneficial to both sides as well as the health of the sport.