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Patrick Hruby

How Much is Hockey Hurting Itself?

The Atlantic Sports Roundtable on the NHL lockout and pro hockey's future prospects

The Atlantic online

No end in sight. Such is the state of the ongoing NHL lockout, which in turn has the Atlantic Sports Roundtable taking the temperature of the league in general:

Jake Simpson: ... In my time on this earth, no league has appeared as hell-bent on self-destruction as the National Hockey League ... At this point, I believe I speak for the non-hockey diehards among us when I say: Who cares? In the digital age, there are countless sports leagues get involved in, from the EPL to the Australian Football League. There's no reason to keep worrying—or thinking at all—about a dysfunctional league with too many teams by half and a commissioner who is as impotent as he is incompetent. Other than Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and maybe Jonathan Quick, the league simply doesn't have enough star power to withstand a second lost season in the last decade. And that may be for the best. A 16-team hockey league that focuses on the northern U.S. and Canada would be far superior to the NHL, and far more operationally functional ...

Hampton Stevens: ... let's ignore how badly the league runs, or doesn't, and consider some larger concerns about the game of ice hockey itself. Like you say Jake, the modern fan has options. If people are choosing Aussie Rules football over hockey, it's fair to ask why.

First off, playing anything on ice is expensive—in more ways than one. Literally, of course, pucks, goals and skates aren't free. Neither is rink time. But the sport also suffers from what I'd call the "Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy Effect" —named for the hyper-complicated pastime of the masses in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Hockey involves so many people, so much equipment, and takes such a specialized playing surface that it almost seems designed to consume resources. It comes off as gauche somehow in these carbon footprint-conscious times to watch people ice-skate in Arizona.

Which gets to the game's bigger problem. Winter. People hate it. The population of North America has been steadily migrating into Sun Belt cities for decades. That, plus a climate pattern that seems to be warming suggests that far fewer people will be growing up next to frozen lakes with hockey sticks in hand, which in turn means a lot less people to play or care about the sport ...

Patrick Hruby: ... , pro hockey is a niche sport. Just like every sport that isn't the NFL. And that's okay. From narrowcast cable channels to single-issue blogs and websites, we live in a media world that increasingly caters to niche audiences. Jake writes that non-hockey diehards could care less about the NHL lockout. He's correct. Thing is, those same casual fans don't particularly care about the league when it is playing, either. Yet hockey endures. It doesn't need those fans to survive. They're a luxury item. Hockey needs the diehards. And if there's one thing past sports work stoppages have taught us, it's that diehard fans come back. They always come back. Ultimately, they enjoy the product too much to stay away; heck, the whole idea of boycotting a sport because you're upset that the sport was temporarily and unexpectedly unavailable doesn't make sense in the first place ...

Read the full article at The Atlantic online