TAMPA, Fla. -- Finally, after a six-month season and two more months of exhausting and totally unpredictable playoffs, the NHL entered Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals Monday night not knowing what next season holds.
As of Tuesday morning, all 30 teams -- including the champion -- will be firmly united. How long they stay that way may determine what hockey in North America looks like the next time the NHL plays a game that counts.
The other pro sports leagues will be watching with great interest this summer and fall to see whether the NHL, in what would be a first, can negotiate considerable givebacks from its players union during labor talks that threaten the 2004-05 season.
"These negotiations are not just about next season, it is next season and all the ones that follow," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "It's about the future of our game."
Bettman has all but said training camps won't open if a deal is not in place by the Sept. 15 expiration of the current agreement. Some teams are expected to lay off front-office employees if it appears that negotiations will drag on, as they did when half the 1994-95 season was lost to the NHL's last major labor dispute.
This time, if predictions from both sides are correct, the impasse could be far longer, endangering not only one season but, much like the 1994-95 major league baseball labor strife, the start of another.
"It doesn't look good now, but we hope both sides come to terms and we can have a season next year," said defenseman Brendan Witt of the Washington Capitals. "But I don't think there's going to be a start of the season in October and I hope both sides don't waste a year come January."
January is seen as the deadline for the season being salvageable. If a deal isn't reached by then, it's unlikely training camps could be held and enough games played for a season to be anything but a mockery.
The NHL's problem is, well, that it doesn't have only one problem, beginning with an unbalanced economy in which many teams say they are losing money at the same time players are averaging $1.8 million in salary.
The NHL, much like the fumble-prone running back Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll once spoke of, has many problems and they are great:
The sport has struggled to increase its fan base, partly because scoring has dropped to a soccer-like level, from eight goals per game in 1981-82 to 5.1 this season.
NFL teams get about $77 million a year in TV revenue, compared with about $2 million each NHL team is due next season, yet top-tier players in both leagues often have comparable salaries. That's why NHL owners are determined to negotiate a hard salary cap that could dramatically rein in free spending by richer clubs such as the New York Rangers and the Detroit Red Wings.
To make up for the TV revenue imbalance, the NHL traditionally has some of the highest top-end ticket prices in pro sports. But as ticket prices steadily increased, some middle-income fans bailed out. Now, to draw those fans back, numerous teams are lowering ticket prices, which, in turn could mean lower revenues and lower franchise values.
Even when the hockey is good, as it sometimes was during these playoffs, incidents such as the on-ice attack by Todd Bertuzzi of the Vancouver Canucks on Steve Moore of the Colorado Avalanche leave some with the impression the sport doesn't care whether it's perceived to be nothing more than pro wrestling on skates.
Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden, who recently left the Toronto Maple Leafs' front office to run for political office, said the all-out commitment to defense has caused the game to become far too physical -- essentially, an extreme sport.
The league has spent years developing hockey interest in nontraditional markets such as Atlanta, Nashville, Phoenix, Anaheim and Tampa Bay, and not very successfully in some cases. Now, if the sport vanishes from the sports landscape for a long period, it may have to start again in cities that have had teams for years.
And what about Washington, Chicago and Pittsburgh, teams that were losing fans even before the labor talks? Will the fans come back in 12 or 18 or 21 months if they perceive the product they will watch is no better than that they saw before?
Will the sport ever build a TV audience beyond those in its cornerstone markets? The ratings for the finals have been anemic, with Games 1 and 2 among the lowest-rated Stanley Cup games on ESPN since 1990, and the rest of the series on ABC not faring much better. If the sport disappears for a considerable period, how many casual fans or viewers will notice when it comes back?