Sunday, February 20, 2005

What the Puck is Going On Here?

It’s been a long time since I have so avidly watched for news of spring training. I’ve always been a baseball fan first, but this year’s spring training has been elevated for me by the glorious triumph of the World Champion Boston Red Sox, and by reading Steven King’s excellent book Faithful. Unfortunately for all, there’s a dark side to my renewed interest in exhibition baseball: no hockey.

The Sports Correspondent asked me last night why I hadn’t written anything on the NHL lockout fiasco and implied with disgust it was only puckheads in Canada who cared. I’m a pretty good puckhead myself, but the NHL has so disgusted and irritated me throughout the whole thing that I haven’t been able to come up with anything articulate about it. My sympathies always used to be with the players on these kinds of things, but salary levels have become such that a salary cap is probably a good idea as a way to sustain the league. (Caps don’t seem to have crippled the earning power of players in the NFL or NBA.) I freely admit the NHL has expanded too fast and I wouldn’t care one way or the other if Columbus, Nashville and a couple of other nouveau-hockey teams shuffled off their mortal coils, but it’s sad when established teams like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and anyplace in Canada that’s not Montreal or Toronto can barely make a go of it.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman inherited a league poised to become the next hot sport to being the only major league with no guaranteed TV money and the first to lose an entire season to labor strife. The league’s negotiating tactics make it clear to anyone paying attention that they are much more interested in breaking the union than in getting a salary cap to guarantee player costs.

Not that the players association is any better. They agreed to an eleventh-hour salary cap last week in a vain attempt to save the season. It might have mattered if they had rolled over five months ago. In fairness, the pay cut and luxury tax proposal the players floated in December was as close to true bargaining as either side got.

A lot of this could have been avoided if Bettman and player leader Bob Goodenow could have acted remotely like adults. Their personal animosity has grown so great that progress was only made when they were shut out of the meetings.

Hockey should have been lucky. No other sport had figures like Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky available, men who were great players and now are owners, and have looked at this issue from both sides. Lemieux and Gretzky also have the benefit of being owners with enormous respect from the players, many of whom have played with or against them. Rumor has it they were the two men primarily responsible for trying to get the season un-canceled this weekend, before 6 ½ hours were wasted yesterday going over the same old ground.

So now they aren’t playing, won’t play, and I’ll get over it. I went to the local rink last week and watched the kids play for a while. I’m thinking of getting a schedule and following the local high school league. It’s not the NHL, but these kids actually want to play hockey, and the people running the show want them to play. That makes up for a lot of speed and talent.

No comments: