Saturday, September 15, 2012

Here We Go Again

Another NHL lockout.

I'll tell you just how asinine this is. It's exactly one hundred percent asinine. You have to figure Gary Bettman likes things that are asinine. That he revels in asininity.

Yes, I blame Bettman, not Fehr and not the NHLPA. For a myriad of reasons, which I'll get to in a moment.

First, let me tell you that unlike most red-blooded Canucks, I haven't spent the last twenty years hating Gary Bettman. Oh, I can't deny the New Yawk lawyer reminds me of a weasel, and the traditionalist in me doesn't appreciate the changes he brought to the game I love. But I confess to a certain admiration for the son-of-a-bitch. He's held his post for twenty years. This in a game where coaches and GMs are hired to be fired, where many players have a shelf life measured in seasons. You have to figure he's doing something right. He's willing to be the face of a rapacious group of team owners -- not a job I'd take at twice his salary -- and despite several missteps borne of the best of intentions, he's managed to grow the NHL into a $3.3 billion-a-year enterprise.

Those missteps, called the Lightning and the Panthers and especially the Coyotes, were borne of good intentions, no matter what Canadians might have to say on the subject. Florida might as well be a Canadian province in the winter, after all, and Phoenix is the fifth largest market in the United States. You can blame Bettman all you want for putting hockey teams in the Sun Belt -- I won't stop you -- but I gotta tell you, the American media shares some culpability here. Hockey isn't even an afterthought on ESPN.

(I've often wondered just why the game of hockey doesn't seem to translate into American. Of baseball, football, basketball and hockey, the latter is the fastest-paced by far, and it has that incipient violence that Americans seem to crave, It's got a mix of skill and brawn that really should appeal to the American sporting spirit. But doesn't. There was a time, back when the '94 Rangers ended their Cup drought, that hockey seemed poised on the verge of, well, not a renaissance, more of a naissance...then it petered out. Weird.)

All that said...

For every Tampa Bay Lightning team that has to comp tickets to the Stanley Cup Final (and isn't that just sad?) ... there's the Nashville Predators, home of the "hockey tonk" with a rabid fan base. There are the L.A. Kings, the team Gretzky built, still selling out games years after Wayne and last year's Cup winners. Carolina's another team in a non-traditional market doing better than many Canadians think they have a right to be.

The league as a whole is doing quite well: an average of seven percent growth in hockey-related revenues over the past few years. Not too shabby given the recession and all. There are a few teams drowning in a sea of red ink, besides the aforementioned Coyotes. The Sharks in San Jose were doing relatively well until recently; the Islanders in New York would still be doing well were it not for about two decades of colossally inept management. As a Leaf fan, the situation in New York is almost enough to make me feel better about Harold Ballard. Almost.

These teams could be eliminated, or more likely moved. Southern Ontario alone could easily support two more NHL teams, to the great benefit of the league. They've relocated Atlanta franchises twice, after all, both times to Western Canada. But relocation is an ego-blow and the people we're talking about here have large egos. Odds are pretty good that even the Coyotes will be staying put a while longer.

Which brings us to the current "impasse" and lockout.

I'd like to emphasize lockout. THIS IS NOT A STRIKE. I heard people bandying the word strike around in 2004 and it bothered me then; it really bothers me now. The players are not withdrawing their services. They want to play. The owners are not giving them the opportunity because -- we're told -- the players make too much money. Well, I ask you, who signed the players to their contracts? Who decided the value of the Scott Gomezes and Mike Komisareks of the world?

Yes, this is a "crisis" entirely of the owners' manufacture. The NHLPA recognizes this, and has offered a revenue sharing model to alleviate some of the financial difficulty of the league's weaker teams. The problem with that, of course, is that the richer owners would have to forfeit some of their wealth. They don't want to give more money to the players and they sure as hell don't want to share it with each other. Nope nope nope nope nope, it's mine all mine ALLMINEALLMINEALLMINE--

I must repeat: the players, to a man, want to play. So why not start the season on time and negotiate behind the scenes? Is there any good reason the fans -- who ultimately pay both the owners and the players -- should have to suffer through so much as one hockeyless Saturday night? I think not. But the owners believe, rightly or wrongly, that the fans will come back, as they did once already.

I think this time they're wrong. I think that should this lockout persist past American Thanksgiving, many NHL fans will abandon the league and become fans of their local junior franchises, or maybe they'll give up hockey altogether. And that, too, would be the fault of the owners.

(My money's on this being a short lockout, simply because the league is doing as well as it is. This isn't 2004, when the league lost hundreds of millions of dollars. They've just signed a lucrative American television deal of the sort that has eluded them for years, and that money is obviously forfeit once their regular season starts (or doesn't start, as the case may be). The owners are stupid, but they can't be that stupid.

I hope.

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