Hockey

SORRY JUST DOESN’T CUT IT

The NHL and its players sucker-punched the game that made so many rich

JAMES DEACON February 28 2005
Hockey

SORRY JUST DOESN’T CUT IT

The NHL and its players sucker-punched the game that made so many rich

JAMES DEACON February 28 2005

SORRY JUST DOESN’T CUT IT

Hockey

The NHL and its players sucker-punched the game that made so many rich

JAMES DEACON

AT FIRST, it felt like a mercy killing. National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman cancelled a 2004-2005 season that, had there been a last-minute collective agreement with the players’ union, would have been an illegitimate runt of maybe 28 games. But later, after the warring factions exchanged volleys of blame, reality set in. For fans, players and owners, the rhythm of their lives was irrevocably broken. There would be no stretch drive, no trade deadline deals, no playoffs. For the first time since 1919, when the finals were cancelled due to an outbreak of influenza, no one was going to win the Stanley Cup. At his sombre press conference in New York, a dog-tired, despondent Bettman said simply, “We are truly sorry.”

He probably is. Bettman may have an icy manner, but he is not insincere. Same goes for Bob Goodenow, the prickly union boss, although he managed to mm his own attempt at an apology into another shot at the league.

But sorry doesn’t cut it for the people who lost their jobs in this dispute, long-serving staff at arenas and on team and league payrolls who now join colleagues who were in the first round of layoffs last fall. And barring a miraculous 13th-hour resolution, apologies won’t spare the team owners and players from a well-deserved pummelling in the coming months. The players have already kissed off more than $1 billion in salaries, and since revenues are expected to drop, any deal they get next fall will not be as rich as the one they just turned down. The teams will lose millions in ticket sales, rights fees and sponsorships, and their failure to salvage the season makes them look like fools to their corporate partners.

The two sides sucker-punched the game that made so many rich while standing on “principles”—the owners wanted “cost certainty”; the players demanded a “free market.” For that they betrayed the fans who buy tickets and jerseys, and the kids who see the guys in skates as heroes. Some very smart hockey observer once wrote that hockey is always at its best and most important when you’re 12 years old. What

does this incomprehensible stalemate do to a 12-year-old’s passion for the game?

It isn’t over. Qoodenow and Bettman will likely resume some kind of negotiations, and without more concessions those will likely run into another dead end. While they have Ivy League educations in common, they see the hockey business from incom-

patible perspectives. So it’s no surprise that Bettman failed to explain to the union why players had to pay for owners’ overspending. Or that Goodenow failed to fathom the precarious state of the league’s finances. It’s time to hand over control of the negotiations entirely to their more congenial lieutenants, Ted Saskin for the players’ association and Bill Daly for the league. They handled most of the talks and drafted the compromise

deal that nearly worked last week—the league backed off its demand for salaries being linked to revenues; the union agreed to a salary cap.

By then, though, it was too late. Both sides had dug in. Most players thought the union had given enough by offering a 24-per-cent salary rollback and agreeing to a cap—“more than any of us thought we were going to give,” said Calgary winger Jarome Iginla. The owners held out for a contract all 30 teams could afford, a decision Flames president Ken King endorsed. “I was optimistic right to the end,” he said. “You’d have thought after all this time we could make a deal.”

Now that they can see the damage they’ve done, maybe the two sides will hammer out a deal that allows play to resume next fall. That would at least staunch the bleeding. And maybe the league will implement a host of new rules designed to enhance the skill and flow of the game, giving the fans who come back a more exciting on-ice product than the old one. But it still galls that they couldn’t achieve those goals in time to salvage some of the season. Because for a 12-year-old fan, seeing the home team play a shortened schedule that ends up with an asterisk in the record book sure beats one that warrants no more than a blank line. 171

THE two sides stood on ‘principles.’ For that they betrayed their fans and the kids who still see the guys in skates as heroes.