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ON HOCKEY

Sport's future in world of trouble

TORONTO -- There is no mystique to it anymore, because after all, the Russians have become commoners in today's National Hockey League, and Finns, Czechs, Slovaks, and Swedes also have been entrenched in the Original 30 long enough to turn the ongoing World Cup of Hockey into a protracted trailer for the NHL season.

Well, in most years it would serve as that elongated tease. It just so happens this time around that there might not be an NHL season, because the collective bargaining agreement ends Wednesday. At this hour, there isn't the slightest hint that owners and players can find common ground, strike a deal, and open training camps as scheduled Thursday. They're not even sure when they'll meet next to discuss their differences.

If anyone says he or she knows where this morass is headed, don't believe it. All we can say for sure is the sides remain polarized on one monumental issue -- ownership's desire to make a salary cap the basis of any new deal. For the little bit the sides have talked, the owners essentially have asked the players to order from only the breakfast menu, while the players maintain that they're only interested in dining on filet mignon.

And therein lies the beef.

Meanwhile, Team Canada, a 4-3 winner over the Czechs in overtime here Saturday night, will face the Finns at the Air Canada Centre tomorrow night for the World Cup gold. Amid the Red Sox' magnificent run the last five weeks, and the opening of the Patriots' season, World Cup fever has not gripped the Hub of Hockey. Based on TV ratings, it also hasn't captured much of the imagination of the rest of the United States. Oh, they'll boogie into the wee hours either in Helsinki or Hamilton based on tomorrow night's score, but that's about it.

One of hockey's perpetual laments is that it is always a tough fit in the US. That's true even in February, when the Super Bowl has come and gone and pitchers and catchers have yet to report to spring training, what amounts to about a two-week window in the sporting consciousness. It's a far tougher fit in September, with pennant races playing out and Super Bowl dreams in gestation.

The international Lords of the Boards have concerns that are greater than how to make a pretty good tournament into one that would capture everyone's imagination on both sides of the Atlantic. For starters, they've got the World Championships and the Olympics. Of those, Olympus gets most of the attention.

Now, with no collective bargaining agreement in place, even the Olympics issue is muddled. NHL players first participated in the Games in full force in '98 (Nagano) and then again in '02 (Salt Lake). The NHL, after years of deliberation on the issue, finally decided to shut the league down for two weeks in each case, for the sake of getting their guys on the world stage. No-brainer there. Both tournaments were outstanding, and contrary to current times, officials from the NHL office and the NHL Players' Association were smiling, shaking hands, and talking the good hockey talk.

In less than two years, the winter Games will be played in the Italian Alps. With no CBA in place, and the NHL season about to be put in abeyance, no one knows if the NHLers will be released again to participate in the Olympics. It's a matter of collective bargaining, of which there is little going on right now. It's a matter of common sense, too, and there is also very little of that.

The overriding truth is that hockey, NHL and otherwise, can't even think about improving its image in the US and around the world until the CBA is settled. Amid what the league depicts as catastrophic financial losses, approaching $2 billion over the last 10 years, the game has lost its legs. Owners for the last 2-3 years have made it clear that this day was coming, and the rancor began to bubble, and what we have now is a sport trapped in its own self-fulfilling financial prophecy.

It's a bad business, from an ownership/economic standpoint, and it also has some serious issues to deal with from an entertainment basis. There are just too many games that are painful to watch. Rules need to be improved, perhaps rosters shortened, whatever it takes to showcase scoring and body contact (see the NFL on any given Sunday). All that not only should be open to debate, but it has to be open to debate, for the good of the game. But no CBA, no talk, no resolutions.

The league lockout of '94 lasted 103 days, into January of '95, and a resolution came in time for a 48-game regular season, and an entire playoff campaign, to be salvaged. The players are figuring that similar pressures on the ownership side -- specifically, the need to play games in arenas in order to pay down debt -- will make for a similar timeline this time around. A key difference, though, is that owners have built a $300 million lockout fund, their attempt to buy resolve, buy time, and perhaps make the players buy a cap.

There is only one thing that alienates a fan base more than laborious CBA talk, and that's a lockout or strike that leads to the game being shut down. The NHL survived the last one, but lost some of the momentum and sizzle it had gained from a thrilling New York-Vancouver series in the Stanley Cup Finals in the spring of '94 that even had Sports Illustrated pounding the table for pucks. Talk about a jinx, huh?

If you're an NHL fan, you might want to watch tomorrow night's gold medal game. That's especially so if you are a Bruins fan, because Jumbo Joe Thornton had a heckuva game (two assists) against the Czechs, and maybe this tournament will be when he finally grasps all there is to know about being a shift-to-shift impact player in the NHL.

Following tomorrow night, the game you love is all in the hands of the lawyers. The next time you see Thornton, he may be suiting up for Davos, Switzerland.

Mystique? Back in the days of the Summit Series, the Challenge Cup, and the Canada Cup(s), mystique used to be seeing players from other countries come to North America. More than 30 years gone by, mystique is about to become an export that heads east, not west, with no return date known. 

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