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An opportunity for the NHL to make inroads in the U.S.?

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday we ask our roster of hockey writers to debate an issue facing the game.

Got a topic you would like to see discussed? Drop us a line at hockey@globeandmail.com.

Today's question: The National Basketball Association and National Football League are both facing a labour stoppage next fall. Does this present an opportunity for the NHL to make inroads south of the border?

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DAVID SHOALTS

Two lockouts will give the NHL a chance to sell more tickets at a time they traditionally, at least in U.S. cities, have trouble doing so but it will be a marginal opportunity at best.

Empty seats are a familiar sight every fall in NHL rinks south of the border, because, the conventional wisdom goes, Americans are busy watching baseball playoffs and football games. Sales pick up closer to Christmas as NFL teams in various cities fall out of the playoff hunt.

Having no football may mean some fans will spend their money on hockey tickets but I don't think it is going to mean a big run on hockey tickets. Ditto for disenfranchised basketball fans. Americans as a group are far more committed to football and basketball than they are to hockey (that's why the NHL lockout was such a disaster for the league) and will return to those sports when the NFL and NBA come to their senses.

However, marketers with every NHL team in position to benefit from the lockouts in other sports are duty-bound to exploit the situation. If you can pick up even a few converts it is worth the effort, especially in cities that always have trouble attracting fans.

ALLAN MAKI

It's a nice theory, this possibility of the NHL benefiting from an NBA and NFL work stoppage. Too bad it won't work.

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The NHL is never going to crack the U.S. sporting marketplace and become more than it already is - a niche sport, something Minnesotans love and Texans like (if the Stars are winning) and people in the Carolinas will attend providing it doesn't clash with college basketball and the Hurricanes have a shot at the Cup.

This is never going to change, folks. You can't bring hockey to Arizona and think it's going to rise to new heights because the Suns and Cardinals are out of action. There are simply too many other things to follow (college football, MMA, poker, golf, tennis) and, in the case of the Coyotes, still too many problems for the NHL to overcome, what with arena and lease issues and not enough passionate fans to pay the bills.

Sure, there might be some small gains, a subtle increase in TV ratings, a few more jerseys sold. But the NHL is not on the brink of a monumental breakthrough. It can't reap what really isn't there to sow.

Time to get that through some heads.

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

It does present an opportunity if cooler heads cannot prevail and one or the other or both leagues decide they want to engage in a bitter, lengthy labour war. One part of me says both NFL and NBA should know better, and even if you hear the war drums in the deep background, eventually they should come to an agreement without a work stoppage.

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But ...

Sometimes, players and owners decide to dig in their heels and this would be especially advantageous if the NBA decides to go out and stay out. After all, the NBA schedule parallels the NHL's most closely, and if they waste a year the way the NHL did in 2004-05, well, that means some eyeballs that focus squarely on basketball might turn to hockey as an alternative.

Problem is that the NBA and the NHL don't exactly have the same demographics and it's hard to believe that even if the NHL does make more short-term inroads by being the only game in town for a while, I'm not sure what sort of long-lasting effect that might have.

It may help in Atlanta and Phoenix, where the NHL is weak and the NBA represents head-to-head competition. I'm not sure how much of a difference it would make in struggling markets like Columbus or Nashville, where the NHL is the only game in town anyway. In short, a labour stoppage in two of the other major sports would be a mixed blessing - probably of benefit in the short term, but with limited upside over the longer term.

MATTHEW SEKRES

Possibly. It depends on the NHL schedule-maker, and if he is flexible enough to account for an NFL labour stoppage.

The NHL doesn't schedule many Sunday or Monday night games in the fall. If the NFL isn't playing, the NHL would want to load up on those days, cater to the couch potatos who couldn't imagine doing anything but watch sports on the Lord's Day. Perhaps the NHL can fill the void there, especially in markets where hockey suffers because of the ever-presence of the local NFL team (Pittsburgh, Boston, Philly, Tampa, Dallas, etc.).

Can't see an NBA stoppage helping the NHL too much. They appeal to much different audiences.

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