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ON HOCKEY

Icing call

NHL opts to shut down sport after failing to reach labor deal

TORONTO -- Out of money, out of patience, out of time, and for the foreseeable future, out of business.

That, folks, is the state of the National Hockey League this morning.

Some 9 1/2 hours prior to the expiration of its collectively-bargained contract with the rank and file, the NHL yesterday officially closed up shop, postponing indefinitely the opening of training camps that were scheduled for today, and delaying by at least 30 days the start of the 2004-05 season.

By unanimous vote, according to league commissioner Gary Bettman, the NHL's Board of Governors agreed to lock out the workers for the second time in 10 years. The Lords of the Boards likewise renewed Bettman's charge to keep working in an attempt to negotiate a new CBA -- one that will contain a salary cap, linking player pay to league revenues -- that will bring financial viability back to a game that its owners say has lost upward

of $1.8 billion over the last 10 years. "We are out of gas," said Bettman.

Now, granted, there is hot air in every labor negotiation, and that applies here to both the league and its Players' Association. However, is the NHL a good business? Not really, not by what reasonable people would use as a reasonable barometer. And, no doubt, there are myriad reasons why an institution that brings in $2.1 billion a year, and pays out 75 percent of that in player costs, can't thrive like the three other major sports in North America. But it doesn't. In fact, the Original 30 doesn't come close in enjoying the health and prosperity of its sister sports leagues.

Lacking big TV revenue, the NHL has had to jack ticket prices through the roof, to cover the average player salary of $1.8 million. Even worse, from an ownership-equity standpoint, franchise values have stagnated badly the last 3-5 years, in part because of repeated bankruptcies around the league and, frankly, the looming threat of another lockout which has now become reality.

Where is it going? Most likely to the courtroom, and perhaps multiple court rooms, in part because of the fact that it is a league comprising 24 US-based teams and another half-dozen in Canada.

Bettman, although initially saying the league right now is not entertaining thoughts of declaring an impasse in negotiations, later clearly stated that it remains an option.

"I'd say it's pretty fair to say we are at impasse," said Bettman, and he said it in a rather casual tone, compared to some of his more irritated, edgy moments during an hour-long media conference. "I'd say we have been for months, if not a year."

Then, after labeling "theoretical" the idea of declaring impasse, he said "at some point" the time could come for the league to say, " `We're at impasse . . . open the doors . . . let's go!' "

Obviously, it would not be that easy, or that fast. Because even prior to that silent `e' not being uttered on impasse, union boss Bob Goodenow and all his NHLPA Knights of the Oval Rink would be waking up judges across the continent, including federal justices here in the US and provincial judges in Canada, to cover the players who work for NHL teams in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec.

You think this stuff is fun to read and digest now? Wait until the guys and gals of the gavel get to knocking around that vulcanized four ounces of rubber we all love. A couple of days of that and you'll be begging to be locked in the basement with a stack of old tapes from the Jacques Lemaire Secret School of Trappist Wonks. More 1-2-2 defensive schemes, please! Toss in a seminar on 101 Ways of Effective Icing, too!

The Players' Association, which cobbled together a conference call some 90 minutes after Bettman signed off in New York at about 3:30 p.m., responded with the same kind of shock and dismay over the state of the Nowhere Negotiations. Contrary to Bettman's depiction that the union has been stalling, and that they want a fight with the owners, and that they only deal via confrontation, the PA's patrons said they've done everything right, just, and noble. Both Goodenow and his top lieutenant in talks, Ted Saskin, repeatedly pointed to the union's recent offer that would accept both a luxury tax and revenue sharing being imposed on the owners.

Accept a salary cap? Never! Exclamations like that could lead a jaded New Englander to suggest these guys should move their offices from Ontario to New Hampshire. But that's a cheap shot for another day.

Goodenow, however, also had a slight change in vocal gears when the subject of impasse came up in the media scrum. Impasse isn't rhetoric. Not now. It's a real possibility, and it's far more realistic that the owners will push toward impasse -- with the threat of posting working conditions, and open up their doors in hopes of breaking the union -- rather than come to some rehashed no-fix revision of the profit-eating CBA that has been chewing through their wallets and equity values the last decade.

"I can tell you this," said Goodenow, "it [impasse] is something everyone on this call understands is a possibility."

A possibility that is dressing itself right now as a likelihood, and ready to speed-dial a cab to get to the courthouse.

"I think the results," added Goodenow, "could be catastrophic."

The owners truly hope he believes that. Because if he does, it could be enough for the union to get around to accepting what the owners are telling them is an inevitabilty. The union sees that as my-way-or-the-highway negotiating by the owners. Frankly, it is, but the owners own the highway, and they've come to the belief -- a reasonable one -- that they've played the part of Wile E. Coyote, trampled into the pavement by the Roadrunner players.

The owners feel they know a thing or two about catastrophe. They believe they've been living it for the better part of the now-expired CBA, especially the last 3-5 years. As bad as some of them are at the hockey business, they're not entirely daft, and they haven't been capricious in triggering yet another festering wound of a lockout that, without question, will take another huge chink out of their fan base.

"The union has to acknowledge this game, this industry, is sick," said Bettman, who repeatedly charged the union with obfuscation and denial over very real economic woes. Later, he added, "They are convinced the owners' resolve will waver. And I tell you that is wrong, wrong, wrong."

Patterning plays a part here. Of course the players believe the owners will cave, because that's all the owners, collectively, have ever done during Goodenow's run as union boss. After 103 days of lockout 10 years ago, the owners shrugged their shoulders, shuffled their feet and brokered a deal that got everyone back on the ice. For many of them, getting back on the ice was just a prelude to getting a cold slab at the mortuary. Their resolve now is more financial rigor mortis than it is simply having the spine to get what they feel they deserve as owners -- a financial system that is something akin to the cap-governed work models of the NFL and the NBA.

"No league would do what we are doing," said Bettman, "if we weren't suffering the problems we are suffering from."

Believe who you will. But let those soaring ticket prices and stunted franchise values be your guiding light.

The game costs its fans dearly to support. Remember when the Gallery Gods looked on from down high on Causeway Street? Most of them now are on the street, unable to pay the tariff, and indifferent about ever coming back. Heritage took a two-hander over the head in the upper balcony.

Most of the owners, based on league data, can't make a buck. In a business that generates $2.1 billion a year. At least, for the Americans among them, they're now qualified to run for a US Senate seat.

Meanwhile, the players, who have seen their average wage nearly treble the last 10 years, figure they've put enough on the table to fix nearly everything that ails the owners. It is a membership that has blind faith in Goodenow & Co., and for very good reason. They have had, without question, the best CBA of the four major sports, in an industry that is by far the weakest economically among the major sports in North America. Goodenow got 'em that deal. He is their Don Fehr.

Today, though, the players have nothing, and the owners figure it's better business to incur the losses of running a dormant franchise than suffer the ongoing bloodletting of day-to-day team ownership.

Those are the facts, with no easy fix. 

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