The National Hockey League skated along the edge of a cliff eight years ago and lived to talk about it. The league is in self-destruct mode again, and it may not survive the loss of another season.
Players have been locked out since Sept. 15, when the collective bargaining agreement with owners expired. A week of talks between the NHL and the players' association were held earlier this month, then the parties met for about 90 minutes Monday night.
Many players left North America to play in Europe, Russia and elsewhere. The Winter Classic game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, set for New Year's Day, was canceled. With the lockout in its 67th day, 327 games have been scratched.
In this corner of the league, Penguins fans are getting restless and the sputtering Steelers provide no relief.
Money is the issue, just as it was eight years ago. In 2004, owners wanted a salary cap and a 24 percent pay cut for players. They got what they wanted, but it cost a whole season -- and that cost owners and players a lot of money. It hurt hockey's reputation and drove away fans. The league rebounded only because of major changes in the game to lift fan interest.
Now owners want to reduce the players' share of revenues again and defer payments for current contracts. Paying players later would save the teams money but cost the players involved a bundle. The problem is that owners vying for top players agreed to big contracts that they now say they can't afford, even though NHL revenues have increased by more than 50 percent.
Hard-core fans aren't at risk; they'll come back. But losing a whole season could cost the league the casual fans it has worked so hard to woo. Those patrons are especially important in places such as Dallas and Phoenix, where teams without storied hockey traditions depend on them.
Hockey already is the weakest of the major American sports leagues. Owners and players need to be careful they don't make the league irrelevant.