Feb 272005
Authors: Matt Hitt

The NHL season is officially dead. Kaput. No mas de los hockey. The glimmers of hope raised by the involvement of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in the 11th-hour meetings have officially been extinguished.

Several months ago, I wrote about how I thought the NHL Players' Association was to blame for the lockout. But since then, the actions on both sides of the bargaining table have made me reconsider.

They're both to blame. The players and owners conceded inches when they were miles apart. Admittedly, the players finally did agree to accept some form of a salary cap and offered to take a substantial hit in pay. And the owners did increase the amount of money they were willing to include in a salary cap.

But at the end of the day, both sides stood firm, and the only real loser is the sport of hockey and its fans. The players and owners are both rich enough to take a year off, and they think they'll just come back in a year (or maybe two), and continue as before.

That is exactly what Major League Baseball thought when the World Series was cancelled because of a player strike in 1994. The league thought that everyone loved baseball, and the fans would understand the disputes and cancellations and return docilely to the bleachers next year.

But what really happened? The fans were understandably furious, and baseball attendance and TV ratings plummeted the next year. Even today, baseball is not as widely viewed as it was during the pre-strike years.

And what did it take to bring baseball back to normal popularity levels? Some of the biggest records in the game had to fall. The whole nation had to be swept up in baseball fever – several times.

First it was Cal Ripken Jr. Then it was the home run duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Remember that summer? When every newspaper in the country had a daily update on how many homers Sosa and McGwire had each hit?

That's the kind of fervor baseball needed to erase the blight that the strike had caused. I can't imagine anything happening in hockey that could conjure that kind of excitement across the country.

Hockey was being relegated to the status of a niche sport before this lockout. In parts of America, NASCAR is far more popular than hockey. Hockey is being replaced by a "sport" where cars go in a circle. For four hours. And barely ever crash.

The NHL was having trouble keeping a toehold as one of the four major sports before this cancelled season. And now? It'll be years, if ever, before hockey regains the kind of popularity it had.

Oh, the Avalanche will be popular here, as long as they keep winning. But in the big markets of New York, L.A. and Chicago? Hockey will take its place next to bowling, curling, three-legged racing and tug of war as one of the less popular sports in America.

And worse than that is the simple fact that I still can't watch the Avalanche on TV. I'm forced to watch NBA basketball. NBA basketball. Not college hoops, where the players care and play with heart and intensity. (A la Matt Nelson Saturday night against Wyoming. I wanted to call an exorcist, because he played like a man possessed.)

But NBA hoops is the only major sport on television now. I'm sick of it. I'm sick of the NBA's showboating, me-first attitude toward every game.

I miss hockey. I miss a sport where fighting is encouraged. I miss watching the only truly successful pro sports team in Colorado. I miss watching Peter Forsberg make grown men look like toddlers on the ice.

The NHL has jumped off a cliff, hoping its die-hard fans will catch it. And a little news flash to the NHL: American sports fans have too much else to watch to worry about catching a suicidal niche sport.

Matt Hitt is a sophomore theatre major. His column runs every Monday in the Collegian.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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