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Under Gary Bettman the NHL already had to shorten its 94'-95' because of a lockout, that season the NHL season was only 48 games. It was the first time that a professional sports league in North America went through a work stoppage. The MLB went through the same ordeal that very same year and other leagues went through something similar but not to the extent of pro hockey and baseball. So the NHL was no stranger season interruptions.
The Tampa Bay Lightning had just won its first Stanley Cup in a classic seven game Stanley Cup final against the Calgary Flames when the rumblings of a work stoppage had made its way into the news. The owners wanted a salary cap, while also trying to incorporate a player revenue sharing that would help ailing franchises that were cash strapped. With the NHL losing about 273 million dollars prior to the 2002-03 season.
NHL attendance was the lowest it had been in 4 years, Stanley Cup Final ratings were the lowest in three years, the highest goal total by a player was 41, the league was losing the fans attention and looked in dire straits.
The Players Association was led by Bob Goodenow, he and the players were not fans of a salary cap and didn't care much for the revenue sharing. The players felt like the owners were taking too much off the table, Goodenow wasn’t about to give the owners all the power.
“If you want to talk about greed, I suggest you ask that to the other side.” Goodenow stated.
Bettman and Goodenow were the leading figures of the last lockout, and it seemed as though they’d be responsible for the first full season shutdown. The NHLPA started to listen and accept the NHL's proposal of a salary cap, only because the players were hoping that the NHL might eliminate the revenue sharing amongst players' salaries. The owners still wouldn't let up. Both sides were about 5-7 million dollars apart.
The NHL wanted a 42 million dollar cap while the NHLPA wanted around 49. The NHLPA did budge on the cap but the NHL felt that 49 million would be too high if every team spent that kind of money, which would raise the players cost over 75 percent. Certain players on a team were making more than 20 percent of what the team was spending on their roster (see Jagr via the Washington Capitals), and now it’s prohibited for any player to make that percentage of the team's salary cap.
So unlike Gretzky and Lemieux coming out of the 94'-95'(who'd make double on their contracts the year after), players would be limited to how much they'd be able to make coming out of this lockout.
Only 11 teams were able to make a profit the year prior to the 2004-05 lockout which led the owners to believe player contracts were getting out of hand that was too much for them to spend. Simply put, the NHLPA didn't want to do business with the owners. On February 16, 2005, Gary Bettman announced the NHL would cancel their season.
The reality of spending your Saturday nights watching poker or pool set in, and let me tell ya, neither are as exciting as watching hockey. The year without NHL hockey felt like one of the longest years of my life. I know many think I'm exaggerating but that's just how I felt.
What’s weird is the aftermath of that lost season actually worked out for the betterment of the league. The NHL as a business had started to grow with increasing attendance and tv ratings. The game is now faster, younger, and more skilled than ever before. It took a few years for hockey fans to come back. The game has never been in a healthier state than it is now.
At the time the lockout looked like it would kill hockey as a whole, however the NHL is thriving in markets we never thought it would be, and Seattle will be coming into the fold in just a few years, adding a 32nd team. Yes we lost a season but to be honest it was a blessing in disguise.