David J. Neal: If NHL, players aren’t careful, fans could learn to cope without hockey

The NHL and NHL Players Association aren’t talking right now. They were earlier this week and seemed to be moving toward a coming together. Now, each sits while the league that’s made both sides plenty of money shrinks in stature and visibility.

They’re like silent spouses in opposite wings of a large house. Maybe this is what they meant when they declared after the last lockout they were “partners.”

See, League Screwup called another lockout less than a decade after negotiating a collective bargaining agreement that management said solved its biggest business concerns. Soon, the league will cancel more games, maybe the entire season for the second time in what would be nine seasons.

The same Donald Fehr that helped bring you the cancelled 1994 World Series (and, to be fair, some pretty nice benefits for baseball players after that) heads the NHLPA these days. He’s fully prepared to stare the nuclear option in the face with the same unblinking sour puss he shows to TV cameras.

Here’s what I can tell you: The NHL manages to increase revenue, sometimes by multiples. It manages to increase overall visibility in a United States that also sees a steady increase in kids playing all types of hockey. The players manage to increase salaries by similar jumps.

They can’t manage how to just keep the party going.

Also, the Private Snafu of sports leagues can’t just have a lockout after a run-of-the-mill season.

1994: The New York Rangers break a 54-year Stanley Cup drought with dramatic seven-game series wins over New Jersey (arguably the greatest NHL playoff series ever) and Vancouver. The NHL is deemed “hot,” especially in contrast with dull NBA playoffs, the first lacking Magic, Larry and Michael in a generation. The Cup and Rangers stars appear all over mainstream media during the summer. The NHL follows with lockout!

2004: Tampa Bay, the most inept sports franchise at the end of the last millennium and the start of this one, finishes its two-year turnaround by beating Calgary in a thrilling Stanley Cup Final. Despite the change in perception from 1994, two non-marquee teams and a historically low-rated start, the Cup Final is seen by far more people than 1994’s. In fact, by attendance and TV ratings, the NHL’s still rolling even with a lockout hanging over their head.

The NHL follows with lockout! Lost season!

(A Florida team wins a championship while rebuilding a fan base, then can’t really celebrate it. We know how well that works for said franchise, don’t we?)

2012: Los Angeles, a franchise in the multimedia capital of the world, scrapes into the playoffs, then steamrolls its way to the first Cup in the franchise’s 45-season history.

The NHL follows with oh, you know what.

There’s a different sense among puckheads this time. Perhaps it’s about anticipation.

You could see the 2004 lockout coming at least two years away. The owners figured out how to skirt their own safeguards and wreck the business that the 1995 CBA should’ve saved, the owners and players finish the longest pregame to a labor stoppage in sports history.

Anybody with a sense of hockey history and the cementheads on each side knew they could blow up the 2004-05 season. In February 2003, I planned my departure from the Panthers/NHL beat to coincide with that lockout.

So, though crestfallen when the NHL did to the 2004-05 season what rioters did to downtown Vancouver after the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, hockeyphiles could just shake their heads at a sport managing to meet dirt expectations. OK, fine. We’ll all take a break for a year while you get your stuff together. Been spending a little too much on tickets and hockey cards anyway.

This time, though, people thought, “They can’t be stupid enough to do it again, can they?” Surely, lessons had been learned.

Nope. The owners came out asking for fat salary rollbacks. The players, apparently forgetting they made up and lapped the 2004 salary rollbacks, got indignant.

This would be my 40th year as a hockey fan. I learned the game’s positions on an Oakland Seals-Pittsburgh Penguins table hockey game. I grew up following both the NHL and World Hockey Association. I fell asleep calling imaginary games I saw in my head. Forechecking schemes filled the margins of some school notebooks. The 11 seasons I covered the NHL day-to-day, being in the house for more than 100 games a year counting preseason, playoff and Cup Final games, ranks as the most enjoyable extended period of my career and probably always will.

This is what should worry the NHL and NHLPA: This time around, there are more people like me who’ve stopped caring if they play this year. And might not care if they’ll play in succeeding years.

It’s a great game, guys. You’re not the only ones who play it. And if you won’t play it, I’ll watch someone else who will.

Or, maybe I’ll indulge in one of the million other things that can occupy my time, money and give-a-damn.

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