Hockey on Ice

Team owners and players in the National Hockey League, headlocked in a labor dispute that could idle Zamboni ice-cleaners for the entire season, think they're stiffing each other. But what they're really doing is thumbing their noses at their fans.

In a sense, that's true any time a major-league sport shuts down over a contract impasse. Remember the baseball strike of 1994-95? It took years for fans to recover from that snub.

But big-time sports like baseball and basketball have help to deal with the wrath of disappointed fans and their revenge of empty stadium seats - a national audience, which generates television coverage, and huge ad revenues. Not hockey. It's still mostly a frostbelt passion that depends heavily on ticket sales.

The problem: Both the players and owners in the NHL act as if they're running with the big boys, yet the economics of hockey prove otherwise.

After a decade of expansion to Sun Belt cities like Miami, Dallas, and Phoenix, the NHL has lost more than $1.8 billion, according to team owners, who miscalculated hockey's nationwide appeal. Slap shots, it turns out, just don't captivate the way home runs do.

But try telling that to the hockey players, whose salaries increased a stunning 252 percent over the same time period, and now rival baseball at an average $1.8 million per player.

That business model has got to change, the owners argued as they pushed for salary caps recently, locking out the players from training when they refused to comply. Having filled a hefty war chest, the owners say they're prepared to wait out the entire season, scheduled to start Oct. 13.

That hockey needs a new model, and soon, should be plain to both sides. It shouldn't take a year of alienating fans - the only hands that feed this sport - to make it any plainer.

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