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.

The sport's slumping growth rate as a result of all of this -- plus a recent economic downturn that made the expensive equipment and ice time of hockey a tough bill to pay -- led to hockey participation actually declining in 2012-2013 from a year earlier. According to USA Hockey, more than 510,000 registered participants played hockey at various levels last year, down from a record 511,000 a year before. In fact, since 1998, USA Hockey has only bulked up its player membership by about 110,000. By comparison, that's about the same number of players that jumped on between the end of the 1990-1991 season (195,000) until the end of the Rangers' Stanley Cup run in summer of 1994 (303,000).

From 1994 to the start of the NHL's season-long lockout in 2004, U.S. hockey participation jumped by 32%. In the years since the lockout that growth rate has declined to about 14%. Hockey fans should rightly celebrate that growth but they should also realize that the NHL's misfortunes have cost it points among not only potential participants, but a broader fan base.

For example, the 2013 Participation Survey conducted by U.S. Lacrosse found there were nearly 750,000 male and female registered lacrosse players across the country last year. That's not only 3.4% growth from a year earlier but is roughly 50% greater than USA Hockey's 2013 number -- which lacrosse surpassed back in 2009. Youth leagues are growing and both high schools and colleges are adding lacrosse teams -- with the NCAA adding 66 men's and women's programs in 2012-13 alone, the most of any sport.

Are fans flocking to games on ESPN and CBS in any record numbers? No. Are National Lacrosse League and Major League Lacrosse attendance figures through the roof? Not really, but lacrosse is building a solid base of enthusiasts that was fewer than 260,000 in 2001 and scarcely worth mentioning in 1994.

Meanwhile, just as the NHL's dream season was beginning in 1993, another sport was in its infancy and making a slow crawl into mainstream culture. Mixed martial arts have existed in one form or another since ancient Greece, but it began to resemble its most current form when Pancrase and Ultimate Fighting Championship first opened shop more than 20 years ago. When UFC debuted in Colorado in November 1993, it began as a bunch of fairly one-dimensional fighters proving which of their styles were superior to the other. It wasn't always particularly smooth -- or entertaining -- and rules were added as they went along. However, after Arizona Sen. John McCain derided it as "human cockfighting" in 1999, UFC worked with states to set up regulatory commissions and make the sport more palatable to everyone involved.

Fighters like Ken Shamrock, Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell helped take the sport mainstream, UFC became the sport's dominant promotion, Spike TV came calling with The Ultimate Fighter and, eventually, Fox signed UFC to a broadcast deal in 2011. The first UFC fight on Fox in 2011 drew an average of 5.7 million viewers, or about 1.2 million more viewers on average than the NHL's most-watched Winter Classic in Pittsburgh on NBC that same year.

That doesn't mean it's by any means over for the NHL. The 4.4 million who watched the 2014 Winter Classic comprised a larger audience than UFC drew for either of its two events on Fox this year. The 392,000 viewers per game that the NHL averaged last season was its highest viewership since 1993-94 season, while the ratings for the Stanley Cup matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins was the highest since the Rangers faced the Vancouver Canucks during the 1994 final.

On 2011, the NHL signed a 10-year, $2 billion deal with NBC that, while lagging behind other television sports packages, gives the NHL steady television revenue that hasn't exactly been a given throughout its existence. A shaky Southern expansion into Atlanta in 1999 also ended in 2011, when the struggling Thrashers were sold to a Canadian group that brought them to Winnipeg and revived the long-dormant Jets. In Quebec City, ground has been broken on an 18,500-seat arena being built with the sole purpose of housing one of the league's floundering U.S. franchises. As with the Winnipeg example, the league seems likely to cut its losses and tap a seemingly bottomless Canadian fan base.

This year's league realignment kept games on at a decent hour in more markets and built upon great regional rivalries. This year's conference final features four major-market teams in the Rangers, Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Kings and features the last two winners of the Stanley Cup playing head to head. The recession is ending, participation is growing and the future is looking bright, but it's a future that should have arrived along time ago.

Instead of turning its good fortunes of 1994 into a 20-year ticker-tape parade, the NHL slipped into a years-long hangover from which it's only now recovering. It awoke to find lacrosse stealing its youth movement and UFC poaching its heavy-hitting brand and two-fisted fanbase.

The NHL is trying to address this through more outdoor games like this year's Coors Light Stadium Series in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles and through increased visibility with help from its partners and NBC, but it's still playing catchup when it should be padding its lead.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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