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Is The NHL Really Still the No. 4 Sport?

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- The Stanley Cup Playoffs may be enough to remind folks in the sports world that the National Hockey League does, in fact, qualify as a professional sport.

Whether it's still a major pro sport or not is up in the air.

In the case of full disclosure, I'll acknowledge that I was raised as a hockey fan. My father pulled 3-year-old me into the living room and plucked a my sister out of her crib to watch the closing seconds of Team USA's "Miracle On Ice" win over the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Four years later, I'd be handed one of my dad's season tickets and would watch my first hockey game -- the New York Rangers vs. the Detroit Red Wings -- from Madison Square Garden's infamous and long-gone Blue Seats. I spent half of my prom ducking into the kitchen on the Spirit of New Jersey to check the score of Mark Messier's guaranteed Game 6 win over the New Jersey Devils and began my last summer before college watching Messier, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Alexi Kovalev parade down the Canyon of Heroes after ending a 54-year Stanley Cup dry spell.

The season that came after all that Lower Manhattan ticker tape was swept up was the beginning of the NHL's downward spiral. Gary Bettman was named the league's first commissioner in 1993 and, by 1994, it would have its first player lockout. That cost the league 104 days of its season, shrank the schedule from 84 to 48 games and canceled the first of the 2,100 games that would be lost during Bettman's tenure. The league lost television contracts with Fox and ESPN and moved franchises from strong hockey towns such as Winnipeg, Quebec City and Minneapolis/St. Paul to Phoenix, Denver and Dallas.

It lost an entire season thanks to a lockout in 2004 and 2005 -- the first time the league didn't award a team the Stanley Cup -- and, having seemingly learned nothing, threw away half of this last season and a slam-dunk New Year's outdoor game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium because of another labor dispute. The Globe and Mail says the last lockout did damage "on levels we've never seen" but, at this point, what more damage can be done?