NHL can’t afford to abandon the entire season

The expansion San Francisco Bulls netted a big goal this week when they signed San Jose Sharks veteran Ryane Clowe to an ECHL contract. Throwing an NHL name up on the marquee can’t be bad for business.

But if cooler heads prevail, Clowe will be skating with the Sharks before anyone figures out who the Elmira Jackals, the Wheeling Nailers and the Kalamazoo Wings are.

After canceling the Winter Classic last week, the NHL resumed negotiations with the NHLPA and unless the two sides are committed to mutual assured destruction, a deal will be worked out before the entire 2012-13 season is lost.

The NHL and its players will commit commercial suicide if they allow the season to be canceled for the second time in eight years. Revenue is up since the 2004-05 lockout, but the NHL is struggling to stay afloat in a lot of U.S. markets. They can’t afford to keep yanking the product off the ice.

Remember when baseball canceled the World Series in 1994? Fans were bitter and many vowed to stay away from the ballpark. But they returned in droves and AT&T Park has been packed to capacity since it opened in 2000.

But baseball is part of our culture and the Giants are ingrained in The City’s DNA, just ask anyone who attended last week’s parade.     

But can the same thing be said about the Carolina Hurricanes and their relationship to Raleigh, N.C.? Of course not, that’s Tar Heels country.

You can’t tell me the Nashville Predators are as important to Tennessee as the Volunteers or that a huge swath of the population in Miami cares about the Panthers more than the Heat and the Dolphins.    

NHL or no NHL, hockey will never lose its popularity in cities with names like Winnipeg, Edmonton and Toronto.

But that’s because in Canada (and a few northern U.S. cities), hockey is a means for winter survival. It’s a vehicle for physical activity when you’re locked indoors for five months, a distraction on the coldest, bleakest days, a place where fathers and sons bond on frozen rivers.

But hockey is a niche sport in most U.S. cities, the fourth option behind the NFL, MLB and NBA. Paid attendance was less than 15,000 per game in Phoenix, Anaheim and Columbus last season and those numbers are deceptive.

Oftentimes, the arenas in these cities are less than half full. How is another work stoppage going to help the situation?

The lockout won’t hurt the Sharks at the box office. They’ve developed a solid fan base and San Jose is the perfect location for an NHL franchise in the Bay Area. But what happens to the newbies across the region who are just starting to understand the nuances of hockey? Will they still be interested after a full season away from the game?

Fortunately, no real pain has been inflicted yet. An 82-game NHL schedule is long-winded anyway and nobody cared that the Sharks weren’t playing when Pablo Sandoval’s third home run sailed over the fence at AT&T Park in the World Series. If the puck drops in January, the lockout will be a distant memory by the time the playoffs heat up in the spring.

But if Clowe is still throwing hits at the Cow Palace in March, the league will be carving its initials into its headstone in many NHL cities.

Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at paul.gackle@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @PGackle.

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