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Is the NHL following MLB's follies?

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The 1994-95 MLB players strike set baseball back for a decade. Is the NHL on the same path?

Bruce Bennett

One of the great unknowns of the ongoing NHL lockout is what the financial state of the game will be once the league returns. While the league had seen rapid growth since the last lockout - and the latest franchise valuations released by Forbes Wednesday certainly indicated the values of NHL teams are on the rise - the league is now entering the unknown of potentially angering a portion of its important revenue streams coming from fans and sponsors.

With the NHL in its third lockout in 18 years - and fourth work stoppage in last 20 - the National Hockey League is having similar labor problems to those that plagued Major League Baseball for over two decades before finally boiling over in 1994 and 1995.

Between 1972 and 1995, Major League Baseball experienced eight labor disruptions - three of them severe enough to cancel games - but the 1994-95 strike that wiped out the '94 playoffs and World Series proved to be the final straw for a good number of its fans as labor fatigue set in.

Baseball had its issues with labor pains before - a 1981 strike left the season cut in two, with baseball awarding playoff spots to the first-half and second-half division winners - but 1994 hit a nerve with fans, and the resulting exodus damaged the game. Beginning August 12 of that year, baseball lost the final two months of the 1994 regular season and the World Series, and a portion of the 1995 season before the two sides - aided by a court injunction - returned to play on April 25 of the latter year.

Once baseball returned, not everyone returned with it. While attendance for games from games in 1994 averaged 31,612 fans per game, it dropped nearly 20 percent to just 25,260 per game the following year. And to put that in perspective, Major League Baseball didn't match that 1994 average attendance figure again until the 2007 season.

"It was tough. There was a lot of anger everywhere, particularly amongst our fans," Bud Selig said in 2004, 10 years after the dispute. "It was the eighth work stoppage, so it had been building up for a long time. The sport came to a crashing halt."

Now, where does this year's NHL lockout fit in this story?

The NHL bounced back very nicely from the 2004-05 lockout, avoiding much of the damage that baseball saw despite it becoming the first North American professional sport to cancel an entire season. The league even saw an 2.4 percent uptick in attendance the year after the lockout.

But it is important to remember the 2004 lockout came under much different circumstances than the one underway now.

In 2004, the NHL sold the need for the salary cap to fans. The issue had been a central part of the 1994-95 dispute as well. The league was prepared and effectively had warned fans, ticket-buyers and sponsors months in advance for the possibility of a lengthy dispute that jeopardized the entire year. While people certainly weren't happy to have their primary entertainment option take a year-long sabbatical to sort itself out, there was a general sense that it would improve the sport's overall health, stabilize the league competitively, and control player salaries.

The league came back with two new superstars in Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, a faster style and the shootout, and as a result of that combination, revenues jumped from $2.2 million in 2004-05 to $3.3 million this year.

This time around, the NHL hasn't done a very good job selling the need for this dispute - and Commissioner Gary Bettman even laughed off the notion of a lockout in May. As a result, this lockout could potentially be much more damaging to the NHL's business.

Certainly this lockout was done under the guise of revenue sharing and trying to help out some of the NHL's struggling franchises, but with the bulk of the focus by both parties falling on hockey-related revenue and contract issues, it isn't as clean-cut as the contentious cap issue - nor is it one that really is seen as progress by fans. The narrative is murky at best, and frankly, it's too late for the NHL to sell the need for the stoppage now that opinions and apathy have been formed.

Bouyed by the NHL's success following the 2004 lockout - and the limited damage the NBA suffered after their lockout last fall - the conventional thinking is that the NHL will be lockout-resistant when it returns, with limited to no damage.

But that is a dangerous assumption. The NHL is at risk, like MLB was in 1994, of giving its fans fatigue over its labor problems. Certainly, there are plenty of stories of fans who were avid baseball followers until 1994 - and after the strike, it took them years to come back - if they came back at all.

Even baseball realized that fans' patience for labor disputes was at an end. It took the home run race of 1998 - three years after the strike ended - to really put the sport back on track to growth again. And MLB hasn't had a labor dispute halt a season since 1994-95, either, despite a close shave in 2002.

"They were without the usual rancor," Selig said in 2006 CBA extension announcement. "They were without the usual dueling press conferences. They were without the usual leaks," Selig said. "In other words, these negotiations were conducted professionally, with dignity and with results. These negotiations were emblematic of the new spirit of cooperation and trust that now exists between the clubs and the players."

The NHL did an excellent job of increasing its fan base in the last seven years, rekindling its popularity in cities such as Boston and Chicago, while other cities such as Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Washington have seen strong support in recent seasons.

While it's a given the die-hards will return to the sport - whenever it returns - how many of the newer fans will? And of those die-hards who return, will they spend the same amount on the product - tickets, merchandise and broadcast packages - after seeing the two sides fight over their money for months?

So as the lockout continues, the eventual damage to the league grows, as both sides gamble that the revenues from before the lockout will still be there when they get back. And while hockey fans are among sport's most loyal, there's certainly no guarantee they will have dollars waiting.