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The Globe and Mail

Fans keep spirit alive, despite league's turmoil

The dark cloud has passed, at least temporarily, the boys are back on the ice, the NHL's horrible summer has drawn to a close with the court decision in Arizona.

What a summer it was, with the Phoenix Coyotes' legal death throes, Patrick Kane beating up a cabbie, the NHL players' association descending into civil war, and the league managing both to slight its greatest icon, Wayne Gretzky, and to throw one of its owners under the bus (though there's grey area all around).

Lost, almost, was the good news of 2008-09, Sidney Crosby hoisting the Stanley Cup, the Chicago Blackhawks renaissance, the continued success of the outdoor game on New Year's Day.

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Lost amid the embarrassing revelations from the Phoenix bankruptcy, which put the lie to those straight-faced assertions from the NHL commissioner that all was well, is the fact the league isn't necessarily doomed to more of the same, or at least it isn't if some visionary leadership quickly materializes.

Laid bare in Judge Redfield T. Baum's courtroom was the failure of the NHL's operating model of the past 20 years. In the wake of the Gretzky trade to Los Angeles, the league set out to establish "footprints" in non-traditional markets, the goal being network television riches, national sponsorship deals in the United States and the rapid escalation of franchise values.

Only the latter came true, and that proved to be a bit of a pyramid scheme, as evidenced by the smoking ruins in Glendale, and the precarious state of the Florida teams, Atlanta, Nashville and others. If an NHL franchise is worth what you can sell it for where it is, ask Coyotes majority owner Jerry Moyes how that can add up to the square root of nothing.

In a couple of those places, the sport took hold, but most of the southern outposts are characterized by rock-bottom ticket prices, a paucity of media interest, patrons who enjoy the novelty of winning but don't live and die with the game, and beyond them widespread indifference.

The good news for hockey, though, is that those old operating principles are a dead issue in any case, not just for the NHL but soon enough for all of professional sport. Mass audience, network numbers, broadcasting in the traditional sense, all are dodos, unless one is selling a Super Bowl, or a World Cup, or an Olympic Games.

Already we have entered the era of content on demand - you watch what you want when you want, from anywhere.

Soon enough, using a single box that will be computer and television and PVR in one, it will be all the more simple.

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Hard-core hockey fans are, if nothing else, dead loyal.

Plenty of people, including the vast majority of Americans, may be oblivious to the sport's charms, but those who love it tend to love it above everything else.

It is the No.1 game everywhere in Canada, it is at worst a strong second to soccer in parts of Northern Europe, and regionally in the northeastern U.S., including some major markets, plus isolated pockets elsewhere such as Minnesota, it more than holds its own.

That's got to be the key to the NHL's future - playing to strengths, catering to the devoted, building on the committed core audience while abandoning missionary work, leaving the heathens to their own devices.

Other leagues have their advantages - the NBA with its superstars, its primacy in some large U.S. cities and global reach, Major League Baseball with its history and summer dominance, the NFL with its mastery of television - but hockey has its advantages and has its niche, one large enough for the business of the game to thrive.

Acknowledge reality, turn the ship around, and there won't be another Phoenix fiasco, there needn't be so many self-inflicted wounds, there won't be any more fairy-tale endings wrecked by outside forces. The NHL can stop being its own worst enemy.

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But accepting that challenge will also require some difficult choices, some forced retreats, some admissions of past errors, some retrenching.

Question is whether those now in charge are up to the task.

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