Gary Bettman, appropriately, in an empty arena.

Recently, Gary Bettman marked his twentieth anniversary as commissioner of the NHL.

I’m sure there would have been a commemoration of sorts, had there actually been NHL hockey played on that day.

Instead, for the third time in his regime, we are looking at a league made dormant by the owners locking out the players. And we’re left looking at the NHL and wondering what might have been…

The most glaring fact of the three lockouts is the fact that every time the NHL was given a unique opportunity to build upon newly found momentum…first in 1994, when the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, and had one of the most marketable and media-friendly players in history, Mark Messier, leading the way. Millions lined New York’s Canyon of Heroes for the Rangers’ parade, and the league was able to leverage the new-found popularity of the game into their first American broadcast (read: non-cable) contract in years, with the Fox Network.

A lockout that cost half a season brought that momentum to a screeching halt. Once the lockout ended,  the Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers relocated in 1995, 1996 and 1997, respectively. The league was able to recover enough to where the league actually added 4 teams (in order) – the Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild. The wisdom of adding these four teams is a topic for another day, but the fact that the Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets, rekindling the NHL in a previously vacated Canadian Market, shows another missed opportunity.

Once the 2004 season was lost, the deal Gary Bettman made with the players which, as I mentioned here, cost the owners money after the third year based upon his potential acceptance of the players’ offer. Another missed opportunity – this time for the owners, whose interests he represents.

There’s one glaring similarity between the 2004 lockout and this one – each time, a team in a “non traditional” (read: warm weather) market celebrated their first-ever Stanley Cup victory…the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and the Los Angeles Kings this year. Add the fact that this year’s Kings championship, like the 1994 Rangers title, was won in a major media market with the sudden sight of A-list celebrities in the stands, and you can see the opportunity squandered.

This time next week, the NHL should have been basking in the afterglow of the 2013 Winter Classic. The game was scheduled between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, two storied franchises. The overhead shots of over 100,000 people in the Big House at the University of Michigan would have been absolutely stellar television. Not to mention, the wildly popular HBO 24/7 series that would have preceded the event. More missed opportunities.

The current US television contract with NBC Sports (formerly the Versus Network) runs another eight years, at $200 million a year. Which sounds like a lot of money until you realize it boils down to a little over $3 million per team a year – roughly a third-line center. If NBA commissioner David Stern got this kind of TV contract, he’d jump out a window and cut both his wrists on the way down. Not only is the money lousy, but to lock into it for a decade is absolutely foolhardy. Oddly, the best case scenario is that the league not gain too much in popularity, as the higher the American TV ratings get, the more money Bettman left on the table.

Once hockey resumes, we’re back to the same grind – a franchise in Glendale Arizona which is becoming the NHL’s version of “Springtime for Hitler” – the best chance they have for turning a profit is to not have a season. (Thanks to Joe Yerdon at Pro Hockey Talk) But at some time, the flat-lining Coyotes will need to be addressed, as will the Columbus Blue Jackets and Florida Panthers, each of whom are struggling with making 85% of capacity on average.

When hockey returns, there will be opportunities there – arenas have been green-lighted for Seattle, Quebec City and Markham, Ontario (north of Toronto), and there are struggling teams that could fill those arenas by their mere presence. We’ll see if Bettman lets the opportunity go to waste again.

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About the Author: Spent my formative years breathing in the rarified air of the second balcony at Chicago Stadium. Refined my flair for colorful euphemisms in the blue seats at Madison Square Garden. Now a curmudgeon in the 300 level in the United Center. My musings can also be found at Hockeenight.com...and yes, I muse.

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