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Can you imagine it? Because that’s what you’ll see…

Imagine your next NHL game. You’re sitting at center ice, upper bowl, watching the fast-paced, hard-hitting action. But something catches your eye. In the middle of the second period, you look down at the crowd in the lower bowl and it’s only half full. It’s so sparse that it looks like a lower-level minor league crowd.

Can you imagine it? Because that’s what you’ll see.

The National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players Association are at an impasse which has led to the cancellation of games through November 30. If that wasn’t bad enough, today the NHL decided to cancel the Winter Classic.

The Winter Classic has become hockey’s premier event. A game that results in no more than two points for the winning team but a game that is watched by sports fans all around North America who wouldn’t otherwise watch the sport of hockey. It’s a day where the league puts it’s best foot forward and showcases the greatest game in the world in the setting it was meant to be played in.

Sidney Crosby celebrating a shootout winner with a backdrop of falling snow. Daniel Briere being denied by Henrik Lundqvist on a penalty shot in the final seconds. The hallowed baseball grounds of Fenway Park being turned into a gorgeous, majestic sheet of ice. These are the moments that stay with us after we watch the annual event and they’re the moments that keep the non-hockey fan coming back year after year to watch the game on New Year’s Day.

Sadly, in 2013, there will be no such moment.

But you know what moment we are going to see in the future? Half empty NHL buildings. This is the image that saddens me the most.

Since the NHLPA and the NHL are spending more time being selfish than they are getting to work on the problem, I figured I’d join them.

I look ahead to whenever the season starts (December? January? Next October?) and see the lower bowl of Bridgestone Arena half-full in the second period. I see the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise going into crisis mode because they lost out on the one thing that could have increased season ticket revenue: All-Star Weekend. And, after all they did last season to force themselves back into the Miami sports conversation, I see the Florida Panthers having to start over from scratch because they went dark while directly competing with the NBA champion Heat.

These are images I do not look forward to. I hate the thought of once full buildings being half capacity. I hate the thought of non-traditional markets giving fans an excuse to take their money and passion elsewhere. I hate the thought that Los Angeles had to wait 45 years for their first Stanley Cup and now they have to wait even longer to raise their first Stanley Cup banner.

I may hate those thoughts — and you may too — but that’s exactly what’s going to happen now. And it’s all because the league and the Players aren’t thinking about the big picture. They’re only thinking about themselves. What good is that revenue they’re fighting over if there aren’t any fans (and therefore, eventually, sponsors) to draw that revenue from?

Do you know why the fans came back after 2004-05? They came back because, as a group, they understood that certain structural changes were necessary. They understood that the best league in the world couldn’t survive long term without some alterations. They knew that all the hard work that went into growing the game in places like Arizona, North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida would all be undone without a salary cap. A season was eventually lost but, in the end, it was a necessary evil. Losing another season eight years later after record growth and revenues would not be.

But that’s exactly what the two sides are doing. They are killing the game.

Regardless of who you believe is at fault — put that aside for a minute — the bottom line is, losing another full season absolutely cannot happen. After all, most sports pundits agree that hockey, in the United States, is a niche sport. Only a select few areas of the country offer the climate and natural resources to encourage the game at a young age. You don’t see kids in New Mexico or Mississippi gathering their skates and stick and heading out to the local frozen-over pond do you? Instead, you see those same kids grabbing their baseball mitts or their footballs or their basketballs. Hockey is a sport that kids need to be introduced to at an early age if it’s to become part of their every day vernacular. Until it is, it’s just a sport that people “up north” play.

In short, it’s an uphill battle in most States already. But the league has worked hard (some would argue, maybe a little too hard) in doing just that: making hockey top-of-mind for families that wouldn’t otherwise think to enroll their kid in skating lessons or mite or squirt leagues.

The NHL seems to think “Oh, they came back last time so they’ll come back this time.” But that’s not true. Sure, the die-hards will come back. They may fight it but, in the end, they always will. It’s the casual fans and the fringe fans that won’t. And, in most non-Canadian markets, those are the fans that bring the teams into the black. Without the casual sports fan going to a few games a year, buying and wearing a jersey or donning a hat at their son or daughters baseball game, some teams just can’t be viable.

I shutter to think what this means for Nashville. The sport had so much momentum after the Preds knocked off the Anaheim Ducks in the 2011 Western Conference Quarterfinals to advance for the first time in their history. There was so much momentum last November when, on his birthday, they re-signed Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne to a seven-year extension. There was so much momentum when they dominated and then eliminated the arch-rival Detroit Red Wings in just five games last season. There was so much momentum when they became the only Western Conference team to advance to the conference semifinals two years in a row. Sure there was outrage when All-Star blueliner Ryan Suter signed elsewhere but there was absolute euphoria when the owners put their money where their mouth was and matched the $110 million offer sheet on his defense partner Shea Weber.

That momentum is all but dead now. And, in college football country, it’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind and that’s what hockey is at the moment in Music City.

There’s still time to save the majority of the season and avoid complete disaster. Perhaps if an agreement is made and the season does start and the Preds do field another playoff team than the fans will forget all about “that annoying lockout.” If another full season is lost, however, the fans won’t come back. The TV timeout standing ovations will be mere echoes of their former selves. The once thunderous “you suck!” chants will sound like a handful of teenage boys chirping at their classmates in the halls. And the crowds spilling out and onto Broadway after a game will turn into a slow trickle like someone left the Nissan Entrance faucet on.

Can you imagine it? Because, sadly, that’s what you’ll see.