NHL On Midseason Break For All-Star Game

The National Hockey League holds its All-Star Game in Montreal on Sunday. It comes as hockey is enjoying a resurgence, four years after a bitter labor dispute led to the cancellation of an entire season.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The National Hockey League will stage its all-star game this Sunday evening in Montreal. The game is just an exhibition, but the festivities surrounding it are a sign of how far the sport has come since it was shut down for an entire season just four years ago. Commentator John Feinstein has been watching the signs and joins us now, live. Good morning, John.

JOHN FEINSTEIN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: For the sake of context, remind us of that strike that cost hockey a full season.

FEINSTEIN: Well, it was a complete disaster in the minds of everyone connected with sports. Never in history had a sport shut down for an entire season. There have, of course, been strikes in baseball, in football, in basketball, or lockouts. This was actually a lockout started by Commissioner Gary Bettman and the owners because they believed they had to completely revamp the financial structure of the league, and they were willing to go an entire season without hockey. That's what happened.

And what was just as important, though, Renee: They got the salary cap they felt they needed to survive financially, that all sports now have except for Major League Baseball. But while they were doing it, they revamped the rules of the game because it had become slower, clutch and grab. The players weren't able to show their great skills because of the rules. They changed the rules, and they changed the financial structure all at the same time. So, when hockey came back the next season, it not only was sounder financially, it was a better game for fans to watch.

MONTAGNE: What has been more significant, though, the changes in the labor contract, or the changes in the rules of the game?

FEINSTEIN: That's a good question. I think it's both because the team - most of the teams now are on stable ground financially. There are a couple still struggling, Phoenix, in particular, coached by the great Wayne Gretzky. But most of them are doing better financially. The fans came back, though, and that's what the rules changes did. After a long lockout like that, there was a good chance many fans wouldn't return to the sport; they'd be so disgusted. But the game is so exciting now. And additionally, two great, young superstars came into the game that season when hockey came back - Alex Ovechkin, here in Washington, and Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. It was a great - it was good ,perfect storm for the sport.

MONTAGNE: Well, yeah, good timing, and the arrival of the superstars was happenstance, I guess, but the league has done some pretty smart marketing as well.

FEINSTEIN: They really have. I mean, first of all, they have recognized the fact that these two youngsters, and they are young - Ovechkin has already been a MVP, he's only 23; and Crosby, who's been an MVP and is the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is only 21. They've marketed them. But they also did something remarkable two years ago. They decided to stage an outdoor hockey game on New Year's Day in Buffalo, which sounds like craziness, Renee, but it - they drew 70,000 people to the game. It got the biggest TV rating a hockey game has gotten in years. And now, they had it this year in Wrigley Field in Chicago, historic Wrigley Field, sold it out, again, got a bigger rating than any of the bowl games that day, football bowl games. And all of a sudden, people are actually talking about hockey.

MONTAGNE: So, it's back. Where does it go from here?

FEINSTEIN: Well, I think it's never going to surpass football or the NBA or baseball, but it's gone from being a struggling niche sport that had really fallen behind golf, and was down at the level of tennis in terms of struggling, to solidly being the number-four sport - team sport, in our country and in Canada, obviously, now, and a worldwide sport. And I think its future is only going to go up. People are going to pay attention to the sport now.

MONTAGNE: John, thanks very much.

FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: The comments of John Feinstein, whose most recent book is "Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Unforgettable Season."

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