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How the NHL Lost the Spirit of 1994

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Twenty years ago, the National Hockey League was sitting on what should have been the bedrock for years of steady growth and skyrocketing hockey personality.

Instead, the NHL sank into a pit of its own making and hockey became an expensive niche that's still considered alien to vast swaths of U.S. sports fans. It's getting better, but it's taken nearly two decades for the potential of 1994 to become anything resembling reality. Meanwhile, the nation's sports ecosystem has absorbed sports including mixed martial arts and lacrosse far more quickly than it has hockey.

I spent half of my prom ducking into the kitchen on the Spirit of New Jersey to check the score of Mark Messier's guaranteed Game 6 win over the New Jersey Devils and began my last summer before college watching Messier, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Alexi Kovalev parade down the Canyon of Heroes after ending a 54-year Stanley Cup dry spell. The Stanley Cup ratings were huge, the league was heading into a big broadcast deal with the then-burgeoning Fox network and stars like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, Jeremy Roenick and Patrick Roy registered at least a blip in the minds of casual fans.

The season that came after all that Lower Manhattan ticker tape was swept up was the beginning of the NHL's downward spiral. Gary Bettman was named the league's first commissioner in 1993 and, by 1994, the NHL would have its first player lockout. That cost the league 104 days of its season, shrank the schedule from 84 to 48 games and canceled the first of the 2,100 games that would be lost during Bettman's tenure. The league lost television contracts with Fox and ESPN, moved franchises from strong hockey towns like Winnipeg, Quebec City and Minneapolis/St. Paul to Phoenix, Denver and Dallas.

It lost an entire season thanks to a lockout in 2004 and 2005 -- the first time the league didn't award a team the Stanley Cup -- and, having seemingly learned nothing, threw away half of the 2012-2013 season and a slam-dunk New Year's outdoor game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium because of another labor dispute. The Globe and Mail says the last lockout did damage "on levels we've never seen." That may be overstating things a bit, considering all the damage wrought before.

The NHL has faded into pro sports' lumpy midsection. ESPN begrudgingly acknowledges its existence and only a masochistic niche of die-hards miss the league when it's gone. Its less that $4 billion is a pittance compared to the $10 billion amassed by the NFL and roughly $8 billion brought in by Major League Baseball.

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