There was a time in the mid 1970s when the NHL had only 18 teams. By the late 1970s, the league still had just 22 teams.
It was partly due to Wayne Gretzky’s influence that the NHL was eventually able to increase expansion and form over time into the league it is now with 30 teams.
Hockey has been considered by sports pundits to be the fourth most important pro sport in the U.S. Hockey cards were popular in the 70s, sports reporters rattled off scores during their sports broadcasts for decades (albeit after football, basketball, and baseball), and fighting has always been an attraction for fans.
Even though soccer has been the most played sport by youth for decades, hockey has seemingly always fallen in line behind football, basketball and baseball in popularity as a spectator sport.
The NHL was able to shake the sport’s reputation as just a Northern or Northeastern sport and spread its influence to warm weather areas in the U.S. where frozen ponds don’t exist.
This lockout doesn’t help hockey’s reputation as a spectator sport at all.
If the lockout continues and can’t get settled, any momentum hockey had built up over the years could all be wiped away with one failed season.
Obviously, there are torrents of fans who care about this lockout and want it to end, but the mainstream media is not really covering their point of view or any other aspect of the lockout. In some ways, the lockout is proving to be a non-story. Hockey’s relevance has always been a little shaky with the mainstream U.S. press.
Meanwhile, goals in Soccer are being broadcast all the time on sports highlight shows. And in Canada, the NHL’s most passionate base of fans, MLS expansion talks are part of the sports rumor mill, and the comings and goings of teams are heated discussions. There are already teams in Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto, and there are Division 2 teams in Edmonton and Ottawa.
The unfortunate mess of the NHL’s labor talks and owner frustrations are bringing the sport of hockey and its reputation, profile, and traditions down in two countries.
MLS would never admit it, but the timing could never have been better.
Howard Alperin is Managing Editor of AmericanizeSoccer.com