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ON HOCKEY

Cold, hard facts to face

Dead end? You bet. The game is going nowhere? Oh baby, you got it, and in a hurry.

Cast a look around the rink this morning, and all we see is despair, despair, double-runnered despair.

Hey, far be it from one in the daily doom-and-gloom business to cast a ray of sunshine across what happened yesterday in Toronto. As expected, the National Hockey League owners returned volley, following up last Thursday's offer by the NHL Players Association, and reaffirmed in bold letters that there won't be a new collective bargaining agreement until -- OK, you know the rest, fellow puck lovers -- there are a couple of fat paragraphs in said document that guarantee profits for owners and fixed wages for the rank-and-file stick carriers.

And, predictably, the players kept up their siren call. To wit: You know what you can do with your cap, Mr. Bettman!

Other than that, you know, not a bad winter here in the Hub of Hockey. No hockey on the horizon, but no snow in the driveway either (coincidence, or further substantiation that we have entered the global microwave era?).

Look, this stinks. For everybody. From the fourth-line bucket carrier on the Fleet's Bull Gang to the Darlin' of Davos, Joe Thornton. The game many of us love -- including the general sports columnist population who seem to love it just to hate it -- can't seem to get everyone on the same side of the ratified document.

Cap or no cap. Revenue linkage or no revenue linkage. Luxury tax or no luxury tax. That's the terminology for fans to ponder in these puckless times.

Sure is a far cry from the days of getting to know the names and faces of the Kraut Line, the Production Line, and the GAG Line. Oh, just to see the Polish Prince take another twirl, ya know?

But here we are, with so little left in the tank after seeing Players Association boss Bob Goodenow and other union heavies cast their empty, forlorn looks upon exiting yesterday's brief tussle over the terms. There is no deal in sight, and while the NHL paid due respect to the PA for its latest offer, it essentially dismissed it out of hand and made clear all 30 rinks will remain dark until the players buy into the fact the NHL is doing business much like the NFL and the NBA.

Cap envy. NHL owners have it bad, and there isn't the slightest reason to believe they'll shake the fixation. Truth is, they can't. Not after bolting their doors for a second time in 10 years. To return to business with anything less than a sure fix now not only would leave them with a compromised financial plan, it would make them mainstays in virtually every David Letterman Top 10 list for all the remaining days of over-the-air broadcast television.

Call me the unbridled optimist I know I am, but it's here, with everything looking and sounding its absolute worst, that I now feel this whole mess is about to turn.

Hurry, feet, get me to CNBC, now! I'm announcing a market correction.

That said, I've got nothing to go on but my gut, my belief that: 1. Goodenow is even smarter than that Harvard degree in jawbreaking leads many to believe, and 2. NHL players are mostly hard-working realists who don't need a AAA TripTik to realize they've already skated far, far too long down a highway to disaster.

Not only is there still a half-life season to save in 2004-05, there is also 2005-06 and beyond to consider. For a guy like Bill Guerin, with 2 1/2 seasons left on three seasons of $9 million apiece, that's worth waking up for. No doubt union brothers Alexei Yashin and Jaromir Jagr would agree, too. Every player eventually ages and must retire, while franchises, at least in theory, remain in perpetuity. Eventually, the business can find ways to recoup lost money, while players never turn back the odometers on days gone bye-bye.

The bet here is now that they've been handed their helmets yet again, the players finally will face up to the realities of North American sports economics in 2004. They've fought the good fight, the one they had to engage in for the sake of looking in the mirror this morning, next week, next year, and beyond. Did anyone really expect hockey players would go down without at least shaking off the gloves?

Better now that they put their full force behind Goodenow in crafting a deal that preserves all current values of existing contracts (forget that 24 percent haircut), and one that guarantees in full every contract going forward -- eliminating the existing two-thirds buyout clause. No small matter that, as any NFL player could attest. For the sake of accepting the cap -- one they still have time to make beefy -- the players should be able to trim back the age of standard unrestricted free agency from 31 to 29, maybe even a touch lower.

Other substantial tweaks would be necessary, especially in arbitration, but once the cap is in place, it's all tweakable.

Time now for the players to surrender? Hardly. It's time, here in their stated hour of despair, to wake up and deal from a position of strength. They are not poor souls, penniless for generations, about to be shut out while on the verge of realizing their greatest payday. This in no way is the carrot being pulled from their reach. Many of the rank-and-file are NHL-made millionaires, with riches they'll never be able to spend, and they still have time to shape an agreement that will allow for more millionaire hockey players to prosper for generations.

Uh, fellas, what's wrong with that? I'll even be so bold to suggest that some of you, especially those from nations that were under communist command not so long ago, should be embarrassed by the comments that have run alongside your names.

The NHL was one great business -- no doubt, weighted to ownership's side -- before most of today's players got here. And you know, it could easily be argued that some of today's players, for a variety of reasons, have made it a far less entertaining and engaging spectator sport than it was 20, 15, even 10 years ago. They can say that they make the game what it is, but many nights that is an indictment rather than a point of honor or pride.

What's done is done, boys. Time to get on with it. For those who'll say you lost, keep a pocket full of pictures at the ready to show 'em some snaps of your various retirement homes and docked yachts. The true loss would be to stay the course, lose this season and next, and ultimately get the owners' work conditions, and vastly reduced salaries, shoved right down your throats. No chance your voice will be heard then. 

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