TORONTO (Reuters) - National Hockey League (NHL) Commissioner Gary Bettman kicked off 2012 toasting the New Year at the lucrative outdoor Winter Classic game, painting a glowing picture of a league whose stock was on the rise.
But as the year draws to a close, a dour Bettman is painting a much gloomier portrait of a league bleeding cash in the midst of a labor dispute with locked-out players that could wipe out the entire 2012-13 season.
At a lavish New Year’s Eve party in Philadelphia, the good times rolled as the NHL celebrated a $2 billion television deal, record revenues, attendance and TV ratings along with a feeling that the league had finally arrived on the U.S. sporting scene.
There were still a few nagging trouble spots to consider, like trying to unload the league-owned team in Phoenix, but the problems appeared small as the NHL prepared to open the second half of the season with its signature Winter Classic between the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers.
Even as 50,000 chilled fans exited Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park after a 3-2 Rangers win, Bettman was meeting with the media, singing the praises of the outdoor game that has scooped more sports marketing and business awards than Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky in his prime.
More good news followed in March when Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the face of the NHL, returned to the ice after missing most of two seasons recovering from concussion like symptoms.
Concussions and a lockout have robbed fans of watching one of hockey’s best players in his prime, the 25-year-old Canadian playing in 28 games since absorbing two hits to the head in successive games in early 2011.
The NHL would cap the season in glorious fashion, watching the seeds of the southern expansion planted decades ago finally bear fruit with the Los Angeles Kings beating the New Jersey Devils 4-2 in a best-of-seven series for their first Stanley Cup championship since entering the league in 1967.
After qualifying for the playoffs as the last seed from the Western Conference, the Kings upset the top-three seeded teams, the Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes, en route to becoming the first eighth seed to win a Stanley Cup.
A team that played in obscurity for many years, overshadowed by the Staples Center’s more celebrated tenants, the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, the Kings were suddenly the talk of Tinsel Town.
But in a city built on celebrity, fame is fleeting and there is concern that hard won fans may have already moved on as the Kings’ Stanley Cup banner that was to be raised to the rafters at their home opener in October gathers dust.
In his state-of-the-league address during the Cup finals, Bettman again gushed about the NHL’s success, boasting that teams played to 96 percent of capacity in the regular season, pulling in nearly 21.5 million fans while generating a record $3.3 billion in revenue.
Despite Bettman’s glowing report card, the NHL has not played a game since, owners locking out players in mid-September when the previous labor agreement expired with the two sides demanding concessions from the other.
Having endured four work stoppages in 20 years, including one that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season, frustrated hockey fans are all too familiar with the tedious tug-of-war as owners and players squabble over how to split $3.3 billion in revenue.
While it is not the kind of hockey fight fans are used to seeing on the ice, the lockout has produced a heavyweight scrap between Bettman and NHL Players’ Association chief Donald Fehr.
The standoff between has already cost both sides millions of dollars with 526 regular season games, or 42.8 percent of the season, lopped from the schedule. Among the list of casualties are the All-Star Game and 2013 Winter Classic.
The NHL had been planning to ring in 2013 with a week-long hockey festival in Detroit culminating with an Original Six game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs in front of record crowd of over 110,000 fans at Michigan Stadium.
Instead, the New Year will likely begin with a whimper and plenty of uncertainty that will be felt all the way to corridors of International Olympic Committee headquarters in Switzerland with the NHL’s decision to remain part of the Olympic program a bargaining chip in the ongoing negotiations.
Editing by Frank Pingue