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ON HOCKEY

No winners in blame game

TORONTO -- The National Hockey League stumbles into a new era tonight when the clock strikes 12. Away go the sticks and pucks, and out come the sticks and stones.

Rest easy, hockey lovers, there's enough of those elements of acrimony to go around for players and owners.

The sport's collective bargaining agreement, unfortunately the festering focal point of the NHL the last three years, is finally about to expire. By mid-afternoon, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, following one last New York boardroom seance with the Lords of the Boards, is expected to tell the hockey world what it already knows: The coolest game on ice is about to go into a protracted deep freeze.

Just last week, hoping to postpone the inevitable, the players' union amped up its last best offer, proposing that the owners of the Original 30 divvy up their dollars among themselves. The owners looked at that the way a table full of poker players at Binions would, snarling at the suggestion. The players also had offered to take an immediate 5 percent reduction in salaries, as well as agree to a dramatic overhaul to the entry-level salary system and introduce a luxury tax.

The owners, as expected, tossed that baby out with the bath water and reiterated, once more, that there won't be a deal until the players come back with a salary cap in hand. No cap, no deal. Bettman will make that clear again today, and the owners soon will begin to draw on the $300 million lockout fund they built over the last few years in anticipation of this.

No matter what they have stored in the kitty, no matter what day-to-day operational losses they'll be able to avoid by keeping their lights off, the owners can ill afford shutting down the biz for a second time in 10 years. With hockey already in a fierce struggle for entertainment dollars in the United States and Canada, every day in lockout mode will further loosen the league's already-tenuous hold on the consumer's sports consciousness. The players know that, which in part explains their resolve to stay the course and wait for a replay of '94, when the owners buckled at the knees after 103 days and reopened the doors, the cap issue tabled.

It has taken Major League Baseball the better part of 10 years to get its strut back after its latest labor fiasco, and while it may be the vastly overstated standard by which all other North American sports are measured, MLB had a lot more going for it back in the spring of '95 than the NHL has in the fading summer of '04.

Rest assured, a good portion of American sports fandom will look up some 7-10 days after the big Thanksgiving Day football games have been played and just then begin to wonder, "Hey, what happened to the NHL?" That's not as true in the hockey heartlands of Boston, Detroit, or even Calgary, as it is in, say, Nashville, Raleigh, and Sunrise, Fla. But wall to wall on the North American continent, hockey hasn't seen its great TV vision -- as laid out by Bettman and his brothers in the mid '90s -- come even close to fruition. TV isn't everything. It's more. Without that big TV dough, the NHL remains a niche fit, one that generates some $2 billion in revenue but still straggles in a distant No. 4 in the hustle for greenbacks.

The murmurings here the last few days in hockey's mecca have underscored the growing suspicion among the media that the owners are out to break the Players Association. The endgame to such a ploy would be the league moving to have the NHLPA decertified (by no means a formality), existing player contracts voided, and an NHL left to go forward with whatever pay scale and work structure it deems necessary to: 1. put a quality product on the ice, and 2. put paying customers in seats.

If that's where this is headed, then don't look for a game at an NHL rink near you for quite some time. A course chartered for decertification would virtually guarantee the wipeout of the 2004-05 season, and maybe more. As of tonight, the whole oozing enchilada will be in the hands of lawyers on both sides. That's bad enough. A move to decertify would kick it up to the courthouse, where it becomes a game of sticks, stones, and gavels.

The NHL is going to lose huge brownie points today with the fans if Bettman comes off too strident, too punishing, or dismissive of the players. But it could happen. Bettman is angry, and many (most?) of his entrepreneurial-minded constituents are steaming, their ire centered on their envy of all things NFL and NBA when it comes to caps and CBAs. While equity values in the three other major sports skyrocketed into the new millennium -- an issue of even greater significance to the owners than what they pay their players -- NHL franchise values have been all but frozen. It's one thing to lose a few million bucks here and there on an ongoing cash-flow basis, but it's far more serious for an owner to see the net worth of his franchise just sit there, or worse, head south.

It's folly to find fault with the players. The owners literally bargained for what they got, not only agreeing to the current CBA in January '95, but twice renewing it during the last decade. In that sense, the owners got what they deserved, and maybe the players got even more.

Indeed, no easy fix.

But the owners, at least in the interest of courting public opinion, would be smart now to come back to the table and accept the players' proposal as only part of crafting a CBA that does not -- repeat, not -- contain a salary cap. To underscore their need for reform, they should then ask the players to surrender unrestricted free agency (now set at age 31), give up guaranteed contracts, and wipe out the arbitration system that just last month cost the Bruins some $12 million just to keep Joe Thornton and Sergei Gonchar from fleeing town.

Can anyone imagine the players, already willing to take a 5 percent pay cut, an overhauled entry-level salary system, and both a luxury tax and revenue sharing, also accepting all of that? Of course not.

But at some point in that discussion, one of the honest members of the NHLPA (and the vast majority qualify as honest), would be bound to say, "Are you mad? That's worse than a salary cap!"

Then, finally, maybe these two sides, the Hads and the Haves, can get down to business and make themselves a deal that is there to be made. 

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