Olympic team playing in totally different zones

NHL, '80

February 16, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

COULD ANYONE make this stuff up?

At the very moment National Hockey League owners and players were making a last-ditch effort to save the 2004-05 season yesterday, the U.S. Olympic Committee was holding a conference call celebrating the 25th anniversary of the hockey miracle at Lake Placid.

"I'd say it's a bit ironic," said Jack O'Callahan, one of the 1980 hockey gold medalists.

The collision of the highest and lowest moments in American hockey history was just a coincidence, but the message was unmistakable.

The sport has wasted the one miracle it was fortunate to experience.

Now it needs another, and don't expect Disney to make any movies about this one.

Who would watch a depressing tale about a former major sport practically begging its alienated fans to come back?

Not even American hockey's ultimate poster boys, the 1980 Olympians, seemed to give a hoot about the NHL's fate yesterday.

"I love hockey, but I also love junior hockey and college hockey, not just NHL hockey," O'Callahan said. "If [the players and owners] don't want to come back and split $50 million [in annual salaries] per team, I'd be happy to watch college hockey."

Regardless if the ongoing negotiations lead to a settlement or the cancellation of the season, NHL hockey is in trouble.

The 1980 triumph had the league dreaming of becoming as popular as pro basketball or even major league baseball, and for a time in the early 1990s, that dream almost seemed realistic.

But now the NHL has not only fallen far behind football, baseball and basketball, but it also trails NASCAR, golf and celebrity poker, with horse racing and arena football closing fast.

The free fall is a sad, cautionary tale with all sorts of lessons. A prominent league has effectively committed suicide, and no one seems to care.

At this rate, the Miracle DVD could become a valuable, historical relic with its portrayal of a long-dead sport that society once enjoyed - like jousting in Braveheart.

How did the NHL reach such a nadir? The owners blew it, that's how. In the heady years after Lake Placid and into the 1990s, they dreamed big dreams and paid superstar salaries commensurate with the other major sports, only they weren't bringing in nearly as much revenue.

Jaromir Jagr's seven-year, $77 million deal with the Washington Capitals was one of many that perpetrated the myth that hockey could pay its stars what baseball and basketball stars made.

Wrong.

Other sports make much more from local and national television contracts, while hockey's TV revenues are minimal.

The numbers never added up, but the owners kept signing larger and larger checks.

At the same time, seeking to expand their fan base and tap into new revenue streams, the owners expanded from 22 to 30 teams and shifted several franchises, jilting cold-weather, hockey-loving places such as Winnipeg, Quebec City and Minnesota in favor of Sun Belt markets such as Dallas, Miami, Nashville and Phoenix.

There have been some success stories along the way, but the end result was way too much hockey being played in way too many places where the sport had no tradition and was really little more than a lark.

That backfired badly on the owners when they locked the players out last September, plunging the season into darkness. Sports fans in the South and West didn't miss hockey a bit while king football was being played.

Other leagues would be wise to pay heed. The sports industry has grown fantastically since the 1950s, but a saturation point inevitably existed - the point at which there were just too many leagues, teams and games, leading to the diminution or outright elimination of some.

That millions of American sports fans are yawning at the NHL's absence, relieved to have one less thing to follow, suggests that saturation point is approaching.

Nothing is ever thus, in sports or any other endeavor.

"What we did in 1980 helped turn hockey into one of the growth sports, worldwide as well as in America," O'Callahan said. "But now you just have millionaires and billionaires fighting over money. The [players and owners] should go back 25 years, settle their differences and bring the game back to the people."

If only it were that easy. If only we could just throw this mess to the man they called "Herbie" - the late Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 team - and ask him to perform another miracle.

Of course, that was sports at its mythmaking best, offering lessons that resonated beyond the playing fields.

"What we did in Lake Placid had a positive impact on the entire country," Jim Craig, the 1980 goalie, said yesterday.

But the NHL's woes illustrate the destructiveness of sports at its absolute worst, when money and marketing supersedes all.

Quite a contrast.

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