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ON HOCKEY

Ice breakers

Lost season is players' fault

If not greed, then what?

If not stupidity, then what?

Those aren't the only two questions left to ponder this morning, but they are the most poignant, following the National Hockey League Players Association's refusal to accept a reasonable -- and let's emphasize reasonable -- salary cap figure of $42.5 million as the basis to forge a new collective bargaining agreement.

By just saying no, a word that the NHLPA has perfected over the last 10 years, the union yesterday saw the NHL abandon its 2004-05 season, and also may have lost its last and best chance to salvage a sport that once was one of this city's most ardent spectator passions.

Principle? Don't give me principle. All that ideology stuff fell out of the equation Monday night, when the Players Association finally and wisely dropped its anti-salary cap, a position that never made sense given the 21st-century landscape that has both the NFL and NBA governed by cap systems.

Do NHL players figure the NBA and the NFL have it all wrong? Answer: They must. Could those two leagues be telling NHL leadership to buck trend? Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

Once the NHLPA finally surrendered its ill-conceived stance against economic sports socialism, principle was out the window, and all that remained was what should have been a quid-pro-quo crunching of numbers to arrive at the deal that would have ended a senseless, if not ridiculous, five-month lockout.

In the end, the Players Association felt a $49 million cap was the only place it could do business, and at 1 p.m., NHL commissioner Gary Bettman delivered the news that all prospects of a 2004-05 season were lost. The league became the first in North American sports history to abandon a full season because of labor strife.

In the midst of a question-and-answer session with the media inside a Times Square hotel, Bettman left the door open slightly for a few hours, saying, "You betcha!", and that he would "suffer the embarrassment" of returning later in the day with a reversal in plans if the union ultimately elected to take the league's offer. But by shortly after 4 p.m., the chance of a late fix was lost when union boss Bob Goodenow stepped to a podium at a Toronto hotel and spewed the same ol' rhetoric he has throughout the course of the lockout -- and during the months and years leading up to the labor strife.

Never during the proceedings, said Goodenow, did the union have a partner in negotiations.

If anyone out there was still listening to the Players Association prattle, it had to end there. No partner. The players may be that stupid, but not the customers who pay their salaries. It only became more absurd when Goodenow said the union made no further offers off its $49 million figure, because of the league's take-it-or-leave-it stance on $42.5 million. He stopped talking because the invisible partner demanded the last word. Oh.

This was the same invisible partner, with recent gross annual revenues of some $2.1 billion, that less than 24 hours before pledged to guarantee up to $1.275 billion in wages, and pitch in roughly another $60 million in payroll benefits. For the sake of discussion, let's round the whole ball of wax off at about $1.3 billion -- or potentially 62 percent of $2.1 billion. And that 62 percent is based on the assumption -- perhaps not a good one -- that the league could start up essentially where it left off, raking in $2.1 billion a year.

This is a league, mind you, that was looking forward to a revenue-share deal with NBC this season. A revenue-share deal, the kind of deal a cable station makes with Saturday morning advertisers that sell tummy toners, magical fish catchers, and biceps builders. Something akin to Arena Football in the big world of sports.

Hey, you never know, maybe the NHL would have struck it rich with NBC. Maybe a Saturday Blues-Hurricanes matinee thriller would have rung up Super Bowl-like ratings and, travesty of travesties, NHL players would have felt bamboozled as the Brinks truck raced out of Raleigh, N.C., for the nearest bank.

Absolutely ridiculous. The deal was there to make, and for the Players Association not to take it simply smacks of sour grapes. The union acquiesced on the cap philosophy, but the players couldn't move from philosophy to implementation unless they got it at their dollar figure. Sorry, it's the only way to read it. Just when are these guys going to ask Jose Canseco to come on as head of their human resources department?

And make no mistake, this is on the players. And it's on their agents. And it's on their union. It would be absolutely unfair and foolish, even pernicious, to put it solely on Goodenow and his sidekick, Ted Saskin. They may be the figureheads in all this, but the rest of them are the dunderheads. But this is the same bunch that got led down the primrose path by Alan Eagleson many moons ago, so in the words of Forrest Gump, that's all I've got to say about that.

This was the time for reasonable people to make a reasonable deal, and the players and the agents and the Players Association's administrators took reason directly from the penthouse to the outhouse. The league guaranteed up to $1.3 billion, assuming a load of risk along with that offer, and the union couldn't make peace with a $6.5 million gap that represented a potential extra expenditure of $195 million on the part of the owners. As in all negotiations with sports labor, the players never assumed a cent of risk. Which is why they are players, not partners, even if they don't want to believe that.

If not greed, then what?

The North American sporting public should forever remember that NHL players walked away because they couldn't stomach the prospect of seeing their average pay drop from $1.8 million per year to somewhere in the $1.3 million-$1.5 million neighborhood. All contracts, by the way, were to be guaranteed, as they have been for decades in the NHL -- something NFLers can't say.

If not stupidity, then what?

It makes one wonder why the players wore helmets all these years. What, in fact, were they protecting? All they had to say was no. And, boy, they said it.

Well, for the most part, they said it in absentia, because at last count about 60 percent of the rank-and-file were playing in Europe. That's how pent up they were over the negotiations with their, yawn, invisible partner. They're not coming back until it's over over there, or over over here, or well, you get it.

Then, too, some of the Players Association's brave brethren have jumped to job openings on this side of the Atlantic, muscling minor leaguers and even minor minor leaguers out of jobs that once really did put bread and milk on the table of guys who lost work. Now there's true brotherhood solidarity. No doubt those dimwitted minor league losers deserved getting kicked to the curb. Hey, that's why they're minor leaguers, just chumps in the evolutionary hockey player chain. This much is certain: The dollars the players passed up yesterday will only continue to shrink. There is no telling when they'll come in from the cold, but when they do, they'll be looking at less. It took the league the better part of 80 years to generate income of $2.1 billion, and there is no telling how much this "lost" year will have cut into that pile of cash.

There is a chance, though slim, that a groundswell of player opposition could bombard the Players Association's Toronto headquarters today and tomorrow, and force Goodenow back to take the deal. But that would assume two things: 1. enough of the rank-and-file have the sense to size up the deal and the nerve to call Goodenow; 2. that Goodenow abandons his standard negotiating practice of saying no.

For the first time in Goodenow's very successful tenure in the union office, the owners yesterday said no. They drew their line, stuck to it, some 18 months after first hinting, quite strongly, that they would need a cap figure of around $31 million. Their move to $42.5 million was a $345 million concession toward making an agreement. The union dropped from $52 million to $49 million, or some $90 million, and then claimed never to have a partner that cared to negotiate.

Now the game's gone, for who knows how long. When the players one day grow tired of rooting under the couch cushions for hidden dimes and nickels, they can explain to the world why they're right and everyone else is wrong.

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