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Kings Cup Win reflects History NHL Can't Afford to Repeat

June 14, 1994. The New York Rangers defeat the Vancouver Canucks to win the Stanley Cup, shattering a 54-year drought in America’s largest media market. Brian Leetch became the first American to win the Conn Smythe Trophy. Sports Illustrated ran a front-page story lauding the NHL and it’s rise to prominence as the NBA sank into the background. The NHL product was on the rise and the sky was the limit.

Then the NHL put up it's own ceiling.

On October 1, 1994 the NHL let all of that momentum and popularity go to waste with a 104-day work stoppage that killed half of the season. The league never completely recovered before a second and much more detrimental lockout in the fall of 2004 shook the sport to it's core, almost beyond repair.

Monday night, once again, the Stanley Cup was hoisted in a major media market of the United States, one that had waited 44 years to bear witness to the most coveted of trophies. Again, and for only the third time in history, an American-born player was named playoff MVP. And again the US is clamoring for the NHL in record numbers.

Now more than ever, the NHL must realize its own potential, both to carry the game to new heights and to tear it down once again to the depths of irrelevancy in the eyes of the casual, prospective fan.  Gary Bettman cannot allow history to repeat itself once again.

For a moment let’s forget the television ratings, which set records in 2011 and were strong again in 2012 for a revamped, rejuvenated, and totally rededicated NBC broadcast that took NHL cable coverage to new levels in 2012.  Rather, let’s focus on the culture of what the NHL has built since the 2004-05 lockout. The lockout from which many said the NHL would never recover has instead yielded a stronger brand of hockey as well as a stronger league, most notably due to the dedication of hockey fans around the world.  But in the years since, the wide-spread depth of talent both on the ice and in the front office has given every National Hockey League city something special --- expectations.

Greatness in Detroit has been preserved. Pressure, frustration, and high demands persist in Philadelphia. The prestige and blind devotion to the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge remains. But Cups in Anaheim and Carolina sent the message that any market could compete in a salary cap era, and that anything less was unacceptable.

The back-to-back Cup appearances for the Penguins and the resurrection of the Washington Capitals taught us that with solid drafting and patience, every team is competitive.  Most importantly, the Stanley Cup playoffs created a hockey city out of Chicago once again, brought the Bruins back to the center of attention in Boston, made Madison Square Garden rock in May, proved that ice can stick in the desert, and now has made the Los Angeles Kings, an eighth seed that barely squeaked into the postseason, the most important team in Laker Land.

Doesn’t that all seem too precious to let slip away once more?

Attendance is up, revenues are up, ratings are up for a game that once again finds itself garnering more spotlight and more interest from new fan bases. As the NHL season has come to a close and with the present collective bargaining agreement set to expire in September, Commissioner Gary Bettman And NHLPA leader Donald Fehr have a simple objective: to conclude labor talks as quickly as possible.

Let the Draft be a celebration of the prosperity of the game. Let the free agency period be just what it is, a shopping frenzy where the landscape of the league changes over night, where every fan can hope to be the day’s big winner. And let September be a time not to discuss labor controversy or shortened seasons, but rather to start training camps with a burst of enthusiasm, to see if the Dallas Stars are the next blossoming young squad in the West, to argue whether or not the Edmonton Oiler rebuild is finally ready to produce, to learn what life after Lidstrom is like in Detroit.

The NHL cannot afford another work stoppage like 2004, or 1994. The strides made by the NHL, by junior and college programs, by youth hockey as a whole in that time to recapture the imagination of North America and to provide hope that each year truly is a clean slate, that success is only a few good decisions away, and that a sip from the Cup can quench even the longest drought (here’s lookin’ at you Toronto), is incomparable and immeasurable.

Mr. Bettman, the sports world is beginning to shine its lights on you once again. Please, this time, don’t flick the switch.

Be sure to check out other great articles at Tonight's Healthy Scratches.

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