NHL lockout could chill hockey's future in warm markets

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Complete a new collective bargaining agreement by Thursday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said, and the league will be able to salvage an 82-game regular season.

It's a matter of perspective just how probable that is, however. Some observers contend that, rhetoric aside, the NHL and its Players' Association are relatively close to settling on economic matters, while others feel there's a fiscal chasm which won't be bridged unless one side makes monumental concessions.

What is certain is that the league and NHLPA will have to meet again if there is to be any chance of a deal. Although the parties were in contact over the weekend, no such session has been announced as of Sunday night.

Getting in the full complement of 82 games, albeit with more games shoehorned into the original schedule and a few weeks tacked on to the end of it, is the best case for all concerned.

The worst, of course, is that the 2012-13 season will end up mirroring 2004-05, which was wiped out by the league's previous lockout.

It also is possible, of course, that a new CBA will be forged in time to save part, but not all, of the season. That happened in 1994-95, when a similar labor dispute resulted in a 48-game schedule.

Precisely how fans, especially casual ones, would react to an abbreviated season is difficult to project.

Many have expressed disgust with one side, or both, since the league shut down Sept. 15, and some have insisted they won't buy NHL tickets or merchandise this winter, regardless of how the CBA talks play out.

It's likely that at least a portion of that group will embrace the NHL when it returns, regardless of how long and/or nasty the lockout proves to be, but there certainly is potential for long-term damage to the league's popularity, at least in some markets.

That would seem to be a particular danger for some warm-weather franchises, where the fan base might be a bit more fickle than those in traditional hockey towns.

Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen, who began his NHL career in Dallas, said it "absolutely" is the kind of Sun Belt city where fan interest could be eroded by a protracted lockout.

Although the game's roots in that city run deeper than some might realize -- Dave Burrows, for example, was playing for the Central Hockey League's Dallas Black Hawks when the Penguins claimed him from Chicago in the 1971 intra-league draft -- there's a moderately publicized NFL franchise based there, as well as the team that won the NBA championship in 2011.

"There are other things in town for entertainment," he said. "If [the Stars] aren't that good, or especially if it's like now and they aren't even playing because there's a lockout, they might just get lost in the shuffle."

While one would suspect that Los Angeles, as the reigning Stanley Cup champion, could quickly rekindle its love affair with the locals, Penguins winger Chris Kunitz cautioned against such an assumption.

He spent part of his career with Anaheim and suggested that, based on his experience, if the Kings don't enjoy sustained success, many southern Californians might opt to spend their disposable income somewhere other than the Staples Center.

"There's a lot of stuff to do out in California," he said. "We had some success when I was out in Anaheim and a few years down the road, it wasn't really remembered too often.

"You have to be successful to keep that going."

St. Louis, which entered the NHL in 1967, could be an interesting study. The Blues have steadily upgraded their product, and their public appeal, since earning just 57 points in 2005-06.

They accumulated 109 last season and fan interest surged. Sustaining, or building on, that momentum might be a challenge if hockey disappears for much of the winter.

"St. Louis hockey gained a lot of momentum last year," said Penguins center Joe Vitale, a St. Louis native. "They had a great season and obviously had a great team. You hope they don't lose that momentum."

There was surprisingly little backlash when the NHL exited its previous lockout, even though that one obliterated the entire 2004-05 schedule. Fans returned to most arenas immediately, and the steady rise in league revenues since then shows that they stayed, then brought some friends with them.

"The response after the lockout before was unbelievable," Niskanen said. "We hope it's like that again. You can't guarantee it, though."

The NHL won't be able to replicate the circumstances in 2005. Back then, celebrated prospects such as Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were ready to enter the league, and the league introduced a series of rules changes designed to generate more offense, and thus spur public interest.

For now, there are no such hooks to pull casual fans back this time.

Nothing except the lure of the game itself.

"In a perfect world, we'd just go [and play]," Niskanen said. "Too bad it's more complicated than that."


Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG.


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