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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Obladee, Obladah

Life goes on.

That's tough news for hockey fans, but the NHL cancelled its season yesterday. Click here to access the league's website for the details.

I confess that I didn't read the details, because in this case the headline was enough for me this time.

There will be no season. Period.

That means that we could have seen the last of some great, aging players like Mark Messier, ron Francis, Scott Stevens, Al McInnis, Brett Hull and Chris Chelios. That means that the people who work in the front offices of the clubs might see their jobs in danger. It means that the people who worked part-time as ushers, program sellers, concessionaires and press-box attendants won't see that additional income anytime soon. And it means that the businesses that surround these arenas -- the places where you go to grab the quick bite to eat before faceoff -- will continue to hurt.

When you have a situation like this, it's clear that everyone loses. Especially when the battling parties each believe that they're entitled to their own set of facts about the true status of the National Hockey League. One fact, though, that both sides must agree to after today is that the NHL is in serious trouble.

Years ago the NBA was in serious trouble too. Most of its teams were losing money. I believe that this was when Bob Lanier headed the players' union and when Larry O'Brien was the Commissioner (one of his outside advisors was an NYC lawyer named David Stern). There was no salary cap, and the league was still suffering from its salary wars with the ABA (even after the merger, as a legacy of the merger was inflated salaries). It took some bold steps on both sides, but they eventually achieved a labor accord that has given rise to the relative labor peace the NBA enjoys today (and the relative financial success). True, the NBA's product is flawed, and true their salary cap is a bit odd, and true, it's hard for a team to get out of the basement, but the NBA enjoys a lot of popularity. And the players are making great money. And the owners are relatively happy.

Meanwhile, the NHL has jeopardized the popularity that it has, which has waned over the years and which has relegated this once-proud league to the second or third tier of major sports. Now, with the NHL out of sight, the vacuum that most thought was temporary will become permanent, at least for the remainder of this hockey season. And the problem with voids is that left unattended, they'll get filled with precisely the type of stuff you don't want them to. Which, in the NHL's case, means other sports. Perhaps its professional or college basketball, perhaps it's Arena Football or Indoor Soccer, but something will rise up and fill the gaps that hockey has left.
And when that happens, a sport already on the brink will be looking at an even steeper hill to climb on the road back to recovery.

So Gary Bettman didn't give in, and neither did Bob Goodenow for that matter. Great. No one cried uncle, no one flinched, no one pulled the car off the road during the game of chicken.

And when that happens, to mix metaphors, all you have is on big train wreck.

As with many things in life, it can take a lifetime to build up a career, a reputation, and only a single incident to tear it down. Wrecks usually delivery tragedies or bad endings, and the powers behind the NHL and its players are now left to do failure and root-cause analysis, spin why they weren't wrong and then try to rebound.

The arenas will remain dark, the kids won't be hawking their concessions, the players are playing in Siberia (literally and figuratively) if they are playing at all. And while the owners are viewed as wealthy people or companies, it's the rare bird that can let an active asset sit dormant for a whole year and then act as if it doesn't hurt them in the pocketbook. Same with the players, from the marginal ones who need the competition to improve to the aging ones who could use that extra big paycheck.

And the whole situation isn't likely to improve anytime soon.


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