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NHL To Host Abbreviated Season After Lockout Ends

Jan 7, 2013
Originally published on January 7, 2013 6:19 pm

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There will be an NHL season after all. The National Hockey League has reached a deal with its players, and play could begin within 10 days. The season will be severely shortened thanks to the lockout. Teams will probably play 48 games rather than the usual 82. As NPR's Mike Pesca reports, first, owners and players must vote to ratify the agreement, then training camps can open and cold steel can once again hit the ice.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Whether they're putting the biscuit in the basket, splitting the uprights or going swish, everyone in professional team sports has the same goal: to make money. The professional hockey, football and basketball leagues all locked their players out within the last two years, and all three have settled. In the players' cases, literally settled for less than what they would have made without the lockouts. Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Shane Doan said the recent NHL agreement was the best the players could hope for.

SHANE DOAN: It was the best deal for us that was available, and it's always tough because we're all fans of the game and you wish that you didn't have to go through this. But we did and, you know what, were on the other side now.

PESCA: They had to go through it because of the structure of NHL economics. The National Hockey League generates $3.3 billion a year in revenue. Forbes estimates that only three teams - the New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadians - make huge profits, and the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers - yes, the Edmonton Oilers - make decent money. The rest of the teams are losing money. So to even things up, the league locked out their players, demanding and ultimately getting half the revenue pie.

The leagues poorer teams will also, in effect, get more revenue from the wealthy teams. Wait a minute, you and every Canadian citizen might ask. Rich teams versus poor teams: Isn't this a problem within ownership, not between owners and players? It sure is, says Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University. But that's the reality of pro sport lockouts these days.

GABE FELDMAN: If the owners are left to their own devices with no artificial restrictions, they will spend themselves to financial death.

PESCA: The union even negotiated away a contractual benefit that the rich teams were willing to reward some players with. Lengthy contracts, which would presumably last far beyond the years a player had retired, were being used to circumvent the salary cap. Now, contracts are seven years maximum. One concession the league did make concerned player suspensions. The NHL had hired former player Brendan Shanahan to review and mete out discipline for illegal hits. Shanahan also issues explanatory videos in which he discusses specific plays, like this one involving Marian Hossa of Chicago and Raffi Torres of Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

BRENDAN SHANAHAN: This was a dangerous and violent hit that violated three NHL rules. The Department of Player Safety has decided to suspend Raffi Torres for 25 games.

PESCA: Now, an outside arbitrator will weigh in on any suspension of six games or more. But even if there is labor peace, does that mean that fans will eagerly return to the sport? In Canada, a group called Just Drop It is calling for a game boycott to punish league and players. David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC, says that the history of labor strife suggest fans do come back.

DAVID CARTER: They talk a big game about not wanting to re-engage. But ultimately, they do come back. They are a very forgiving customer base unlike maybe other industries.

PESCA: Yes, the forgiving Bruins fans who still stews over a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty from the 1979, or the live and let live Flyers fans who will tell you that Nystrom was offside in 1980. These are the grudges that sustain the hockey fan. But they're against rivals, not the sport itself. Mike Pesca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.