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This week's player strike in the National Hockey League - the first in the organization's 75-year history - could be the worst thing that ever happened to professional hockey. Or it could be the best. The ultimate impact depends not on the walkout itself but on how and when the dispute is settled.

Already the walkout threatens to deprive the financially shaky league of needed revenues, the players of $3.2 million in playoff money and the fans of the Stanley Cup series. To hockey fans, that's like what the loss of the World Series would be to baseball fans.If the strike extends into next season, as some observers fear, the impact could easily include diminishing fan interest - particularly in the United States. To Canadians, hockey is the national pastime. But to Americans, hockey ranks far behind baseball, basketball, football and maybe even tennis.

That's why the striking hockey players can't count on much sympathy even though their average salary of $377,000 a year - while far from conferring eligibility for food stamps - falls far below the average salary of $1.1 million a year in the National Basketball Association.

Even a quick settlement won't be enough if it merely results in passing the cost of higher player salaries along to hockey fans in the form of higher ticket prices.

Instead, what's needed is a settlement that seeks to broaden the financial base of professional hockey by expanding the market. In the estimation of some knowledgeable insiders, this could be done by expanding the NHL heavily into Europe, where there is said to be considerable interest in hockey, and by stepping up sales of NHL merchandise. The players want a share of those sales, and expanding the pie would make it easier to give them a slice.

Moreover, how about tougher action to eliminate the fighting that mars so many hockey games? Less violence could attract more fans by making the game more acceptable as family entertainment.

Meanwhile, couldn't the team owners and players agree to disagree but wait until after the championship playoffs to work out their differences?