John F. Russell: NHL fans, hockey has disappeared
February 19, 2005
You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound but also of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. There’s a signpost up ahead — your next stop: the Lockout Zone.
The day is Feb. 16, a Wednesday not so unlike any other Wednesday — only something is missing.
In a state where just a year ago, Colorado Avalanche fans were watching their team, a team that had somehow found its way to Colorado from Quebec in the height of hockey’s popularity, position itself for another post-season run.
But in a story that seems too cruel, too bizarre even for Rod Serling’s creative mind, hockey has disappeared. The sad thing is nobody really seems to care.
Is it some kind of ironic twist, a trick played on a few fans in Colorado who fell in love with the game after the Avalanche arrived in 1995?
Were we too fanatic? Are we being taught a lesson for the disappointment we felt last year when our team somehow lost Game 6 of the Western semifinal series to the San Jose Sharks?
The season was over, but the spiraling nightmare of waiting for the next game, the next season, was just beginning.
Somewhere between that heartbreaking loss and the start of this season, Avalanche fans were guided along a horrible journey that they hoped would lead to hockey Oz. But that’s not where it led. Instead, hockey fans found a world based in a dimension of unreal value, unrealistic expectations and incredible stubbornness. It’s a place where union representatives and narrow-minded owners ruled.
Kind of sounds like an episode of the Twilight Zone doesn’t it? But it’s not.
For those who really love hockey, the nightmare has not ended — it’s simply moved to another terrifying arena, and it’s not science fiction.
On Wednesday, the league slipped from the disorienting lockout to a full cancellation of the season. Hockey became the first major sports league in the United States to lose an entire season to a labor dispute.
The outcome has made it obvious that hockey must change. There are too many teams, too many high-priced players and not enough of what most American sports fans crave.
Less than half of the 30 NHL teams are profitable, and many teams are on the brink of bankruptcy.
To survive, the owners say, there must be a workable salary cap with numbers that work for every team, in every city.
But they also must look to the heart of the game and figure out a way to capture fans in places besides Detroit, Denver and a few other cities.
Owners and players will continue to argue about who won and lost, with each side blaming the other for the lost season.
Meanwhile, hockey fans will be caught in a dimension not of sight nor sound, but of stupidity.