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ON HOCKEY

A season being killed softly

So, two months into Lockout II, how are you enjoying the 2004-05 hockey season? Sure is quiet around the rink, and given that no one is sashaying up to the bargaining table, it sure looks like it's going to remain quiet for a lot longer.

Contrary to what most everyone believes, the two sides do agree on something. Neither the players nor the owners want to hand their battered game over to a mediator. Maybe they don't have the answer to what ails them, but they're absolutely positive no one else does. That's the polite way of saying that the NHL is a private business, and businesses that don't have to placate shareholders or answer to Securities and Exchange Commission bean-counters don't like baring their souls and financials to even the most qualified butt-in-skis. No surprise that.

What does border on the breathtaking so far, however, is the apathy among the fan base. Maybe that's exaggerated here in the Hub of the Universe, because of the mesmerizing success of the local NFL and Major League Baseball franchises. Have we become so accustomed not only to winning but to championships that our passion for anything else doesn't even merit a shrug?

The original NHL schedule, released over the summer, had the Bruins facing the Canadiens last night in Montreal. There was a time when that created a palpable buzz here in the Hub of Hockey, and some of that rattle and hum returned last spring when the two hooked up once more in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Now, seven months later, the game has gone into self-induced hibernation, and I'm willing to bet not even your most loyal, dyed-in-the-woolen-sock Bruins fan had the slightest clue that Boston-Montreal was on the original dance card for last night. The game has just gone away, and here in one of North America's richest hockey hotbeds, the sound of concern doesn't even reach the silence of one hand clapping.

If you care out there, please raise your hand. Hello? Hello? Hello . . .?

Kind of frightening, isn't it? Suddenly, that NHL shield is taking on the haunting aura of the Oldsmobile logo, a brand that for decades we all took for granted, until it just sort of, you know, veered off the highway and disappeared into the sunset. There are some people out there who believe Olds is still in business, but they're probably the same people who check into the NHL right around Christmas when they're shopping for tickets. Imagine their surprise when they trundle down to Causeway Street and find that the only ice in the neighborhood is to be found either on the sidewalk or behind the bar at The Fours.

There are many reasons the fan base isn't engaged right now -- some of them relating to the sagging on-ice product of the last 10 years -- but I'm convinced that isn't what is feeding the ennui.

Why do we seem not to care?

The first reason is that the owners aren't talking, because of the fear of saying something that commissioner Gary Bettman doesn't like and therefore incurring a fine of $100,000 or more. Bettman, prudently, doesn't want his fellow lockout artists compromising the talks (or, right now, the non-talks). If a few of his pals among the Lords of the Boards start to suggest that they could do business without a hard salary cap, then whoops, there goes the solidarity among the suits. Bettman learned 10 years ago the cost of not muzzling his millionaires. If he fails again now, and doesn't win cost certainty in the next collective bargaining agreement, then he'll be the ex-commissioner of the one-time NHL.

The two guys on Bettman's side of the equation who could most influence these talks are Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, two of the game's legends who are now the faces of their franchises in Phoenix and Pittsburgh. They carry weight with players and owners and fans, and in that sense that makes them more powerful than either Bettman or his Players Association counterpart, Bob Goodenow. But because they are embedded with the Bettmans, they can't talk. They're simply afraid and, to their credit, loyal. For now.

At a time when the game needs them more than ever, not a word from Gretzky and ditto for Lemieux. How utterly sad. They've made the smart decision to say nothing, a measure of their intelligence. But one must wonder when their courage, the true center of their talent as players, will emerge. Each has been reduced to a pawn in a game they once ruled by will. In their primes, no checker could stop them. Now they are their own worst shadows.

Meanwhile, the players are willing to talk. But, you know what, it's a long yodel from Europe.

Roughly one-third of the union's rank and file is now doing business on the other side of the Atlantic. Here in what has become the greatest crisis in the history of the NHL -- and the read here is that both sides are grossly underestimating the North American consumer's ability, if not eagerness, to disengage -- most of the game's best and brightest have: 1. yawned and 2. dashed to places like Russia, Finland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and even England. In most cases, they are working for wages on par with the NHL pay scale of the early and mid '80s. Migrant millionaires in search of a game. Now there's a look, huh? Must be some sight, the fellas pulling into Prague in their broken-down Conestogas.

There is no denying these guys their right to go make a buck. They're hardly alone in making the dollar their deity. But that's not what drives them. Let's be real.

They're over there right now (until it's over over here), first and foremost because it fits the union strategy and agenda. It's just the blase, we-don't-need-no-stinkin'-NHL attitude that the Players Association wants to convey in order to gain, it believes, leverage in the talks. As a group, NHL players last year averaged around $1.8 million. Given that it's the higher-priced mercenary that was wooed to Europe, the average is probably much higher for the lot that turned the transoceanic spin-o-rama.

What we have here then are owners who are afraid to talk and players who saw fit not only to leave the building, but to vacate the continent. Like they said, "Oh, no league? Uh, never mind."

The players aren't even here to show they care, never mind talk or not talk. And they expect us to care? Fellas, come on, be real. TV has totally and absolutely forgotten about you. It's amazing that even a half-dozen major metropolitan dailies in the US and Canada still keep a light on, in terms of space allotted to a defunct sport, in hopes that you'll come back.

In another month or two, even The Hockey News might forget who you are. Or were.

Today is Day 62 of the second NHL Lockout in 10 years. The growing belief around The League That Was is that the season will be blown dead on or about Jan. 1 if talks -- what are they? --haven't led to a deal.

Sixty-two days down, and realistically, only about 30-40 more to go. Bet that really has everyone buzzin' 'round the water cooler this morning. But, hey, keep it quiet, OK? That's just the way these Olds guys want it. 

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