Is the NHL better off than it was four years ago?

Bruce Bennett

There's ANOTHER lockout in the NHL and public opinion is at its lowest point in years, but all things considered, it's tough to argue that the league hasn't grown over the last four years.

It's a common refrain on the campaign trail, and as Americans go to the polls this Election Day, it's a question many of us ask ourselves: Are we better off than we were four years ago?

In the NHL, it's a question that's also worth asking. As the lockout hits Day 52, is the league better off than it was four years ago? And of course, the answer is simple:

NO THERE'S A LOCKOUT U IDIOT

... okay, fine, it's not that simple.

Believe it or not, as awful as the ongoing work stoppage may be, there's a whole lot of reason to believe that the NHL is truly better off now than it was four years ago, seven years ago or 19 years ago when Gary Bettman took office. Consider:

* In 1993, the NHL signed a five-year, $80 million television deal with ESPN. That's $16 million per season. In 2011, NBC signed a 10-year, $2 billion deal with the league. That's $200 million per season.

* Montreal hasn't forgotten how to riot after a first-round win. Or loss.

* There was the setback in TV dollars following the 2004-05 lockout, of course. The NHL was shunned to Outdoor Life Network, which paid the league $77.5 million per year. Prior, from 1999 until the lockout, ESPN had paid the league $120 million per year.

* In 1993, the average NHL player salary was roughly $500,000. In 1997, it had doubled to roughly $1 million. In 2005, salaries were rolled back following the lost, locked-out season, but they had gone up another ~50 percent to about $1.5 million. In 2011-12, the average NHL salary was roughly $2.5 million.

* Four years ago, Matt Cooke was a threat to the brain health of every NHL player. Now, he's rehabilitated.

* The NHL's salary cap in 2008-09 was $56.7 million. It's unclear exactly what the cap will be when hockey resumes this season (fingers crossed), but in 2011-12, the cap was $64.3 million.

* The St. Louis Blues are relevant again.

* Hockey in Chicago, an Original Six city and one of the most important markets in the country, has seen a resurgence thanks to young stars and a Stanley Cup.

* For all the problems elsewhere, hockey is thriving in the most important American markets: Chicago (as mentioned), Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles, etc.

* Fans in Atlanta might not agree, and it still remains to be seen whether or not Winnipeg can survive long-term as an NHL market again. But for now, the verdict is pretty clear: In the one year after their move, the Jets/Thrashers franchise grew their value by 21 percent. That's tops in the league and an improvement over where this franchise stood four years ago. And with all due respect to hockey fans

* The Buffaslug is no longer a thing.

* The Islanders have come to their fashion senses, too, switching from this to this. ... okay, fine, ignore the black one. They'll get it completely someday, but it's an improvement for now.

* More importantly, the team has ensured it will stay in the New York market, announcing their move to Brooklyn's Barclays Center. The arena isn't perfect for hockey, but it's a vast improvement over Nassau Coliseum and will allow the team to become a revenue generator instead of a leech on the rest of the league. The allure of state-of-the-art facilities in the largest city in the world will undoubtedly help them attract free agents, too. Three competitive teams in the New York metro area is only a good thing for hockey.

* Toronto still sucks, and that's good for everybody.

* In the last four years, the New Jersey Devils have moved into Prudential Center and the Pittsburgh Penguins moved into Consol Energy Center, leaving behind dilapidated old barns. The oldest arena in the league, Madison Square Garden, has undergone multi-million dollar renovations. All but four NHL buildings -- the soon-to-be-vacated Nassau Coliseum, Edmonton's Rexall Place, Calgary's Saddledome and Detroit's Joe Louis Arena -- are considered state-of-the-art.

* Overall, league revenue was $2.6 billion in 2007-08. It's now $3.3 billion and, regardless of this current work stoppage, expected to grow over the next full season. That's progress in the most basic sense.

***

Of course, the NHL still has its problems. The current lockout is undoubtedly hurting the business -- the cancellation of the Winter Classic, for example, hurts both in the wallet and with public opinion -- and there are teams in the league that are struggling just to survive. Absurdly high ticket prices have priced many fans out of live hockey in some of the most vital league cities and both concussions and player safety are very real issues to worry about on the ice.

But on the whole, the business of the NHL is better than it's ever been, lockout or not, and that will continue whenever the work stoppage ends. Generally speaking, individual teams are healthier than they've ever been. It's tough to argue that the on-ice product isn't getting better and over time, players are earning and will continue to earn more money than they have in the past.

More people care about this game than ever before, and regardless of what they say while emotions are high during a frustrating lockout, the 2004-05 proved they'll be back whenever hockey comes back, even if that rebound takes a few years to play out. Hell, both the players and the owners have operated under the assumption that league growth will continue at some level over the course of the next CBA ... and what evidence is there to prove them wrong?

The NHL is better off now than it was four years ago, and there's little reason to think that trend will change in the next four years. That doesn't mean you have to like Gary Bettman or anything, but it's at least worth acknowledging.

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