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The Globe and Mail

Both sides should remember lessons of the 1994 NHL lockout

Los Angeles Kings' Wayne Gretzky reads a newspaper sports section on the boards during a break in practice at the Fraser Ice Arena in Fraser, Mich. Tuesday, Nov. 29, l994.

Associated Press

Both sides in the NHL lockout should think 1994 not 2004 when it comes to the damage this senseless business shutdown causes.

The problems that saw the 2004-05 season lost to a lockout started with the first of three lockouts under NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Eighteen years later, the league is poised to enter the same nuclear winter because management is too focused on beating labour to look at the big picture.

In the early summer of 1994, the NHL was hailed as "the coolest game on earth," to use one of the league's favourite advertising slogans. The New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, putting hockey centre stage in the biggest media market in the world. For the first time, the Rangers were regularly on the front pages of the New York tabloids, not behind eight pages of coverage of one of the New York Yankees' 162 games.

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The NHL was getting similar coverage around the United States, the market it has longed to capture in the same terms as basketball, football and baseball. Sports Illustrated hailed the NHL as the next big thing.

And then it all went away. Looking back, it seems like it happened in the blink of an eye but it was 10 years of self-inflicted damage that led to the lost season.

First, the owners locked out the players because they said salaries were getting out of control. The Rangers didn't get to raise their Stanley Cup banner on opening night of the 1994-95 season. That would have to wait until January when a 48-game season finally got under way when a new collective agreement was reluctantly reached.

The Los Angeles Kings, residents of the most important market to have won a championship since the Rangers, are in the same holding pattern today. This is even worse than what happened to the Rangers because almost all of the people in Los Angeles are casual fans at best. The chance to turn them into diehards is slipping away.

For it is the casual fans who hold the key to lasting riches for sports leagues, especially ones like the NHL that have long had success only in certain cold-weather regions in the U.S. They are the ones who turn crowds of 10,000 season-ticket holders into a string of sellouts.

But in 1994, the casual fan and then a lot of diehards turned to other diversions. The lockout was followed by increasingly bad hockey as the effects of the NHL's rapid expansion into those "non-traditional markets" took effect. Coaches adopted the tried-and-true method of numbing defensive hockey to ensure their expansion teams became competitive quickly and the rest of the league followed.

The owners, sated by hundreds of millions of expansion dollars from their new partners, let it happen. Why change from the short-sighted view when the cash is rolling in?

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It would be nice, though, if they took in the big picture once in a while. Then the owners might see a sport that is in the same position it was in 1994. Thanks to the wakeup call of the 2004-05 lockout, the game was finally pushed back to a more entertaining style of offensive hockey. By the time the Kings won the Cup in June, the U.S. fans had forgotten about the sting of the lost season to come back in numbers strong enough to keep league-wide revenue rising steadily until it hit $3.3-billion (U.S.) in 2011-12, another record.

Once again, the league has the chance to get more than a passing glance from the American public (Canada will always be there, of course). The NHL can be something more than the fourth league, a diversion until the baseball season gets serious or while your NBA or NFL team is awful.

Instead we have owners whose first solution to a problem is to shut down the business. Combine this with players determined to prove that this time they won't be pushovers and hockey's future is in jeopardy.\

So serious issues go unaddressed and millions of U.S. fans are finding other things to do.

In the meantime, check out what one of the best thinkers in hockey, former Chicago Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets general manager Mike Smith, has to say about why the players will be the winners whenever this lockout ends.

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