Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Clock Strikes Midnight On NHL Season

The 2004-05 NHL season came to a abrupt end Wednesday afternoon when Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the cancelation of the entire season. In devastating fashion, both owners and players failed miserably in delivering a new CBA that would have prevented this horrible outcome. Now, no matter which side you took, both came out losers in a game of chicken, in which the fans didn't seem to matter to either party.

Not since 1919 has there been no Stanley Cup winner. However, circumstances were extremely different back then due to an influenza epidemic. There was no such excuse this time. While both parties can claim that they put forth a last ditch effort to save this season, it came too late and was not enough. Instead of giving an honest attempt to reach an agreement last summer and during the fall, neither side seemed in any rush. They each procrastinated and didn't seem ready to negotiate in good faith. The NHLPA was intent on not having a salary cap while the owners not only insisted on a cap but a hard one that included linkage of revenues. The way the process was handled by Bettman and PA chief Bob Goodenow, there never was a chance. Both were so stubborn on getting their way that neither was willing to budge for months.

It was so disorganized that when it became apparent neither side would be able to settle the labor dispute in time to play at least half a season, Bettman still wouldn't commit to a drop-dead date. By the time he decided last week to finally give a definitive deadline, even if they had miraculously agreed to a new deal, only an abbreviated 28-game season with playoffs would have taken place. A far cry from a full 82 games, which had to have diehard fans scratching their heads. From a credibility standpoint, it made no sense to even play at that point. The league probably should have pulled the plug three weeks ago. But instead, it continued to drag out.

When Bettman indicated that he would call the press conference Wednesday at 1 PM, Goodenow finally cracked and offered a $52 million cap to go with a 24 percent giveback he already made back in December. The league came in at $40 million and no linkage leaving both sides a great deal apart. When Bettman offered a take-it-or-leave-it $42.5 million Tuesday night, Goodenow countered with $49 million. This was the closest both sides had been. $6.5 million was all that separated the two from having a new deal in place. But neither was willing to go that extra mile to reach the common ground required to achieve a new agreement. That figure looked to be around $45 million. Unfortunately for the league and its players, it never came to fruition. Instead, team employees who lost their jobs and diehard fans were left high and dry by two greedy sides fighting over millions and billions of dollars. To a regular working person on the street, we didn't count in their book.

No matter how much remorse Bettman and Goodenow expressed yesterday, the damage was done. Losing an entire season makes no sense, especially when their sport is not even in the same stratosphere as other major sports like baseball, football and basketball. Even televised poker might be a better draw than the NHL. When stations like ESPN and FSNY can televise poker tournaments, you know the league is in trouble. Now without a season, it's on the backburner.

This is a sport that doesn't have a good network TV deal in place. At one time, ESPN gave it a lot of coverage and aired many games and even had a half hour show "NHL2Nite" dedicated to hockey fans. But as ratings continued to sink the past couple of years, they decreased the amount shown and finally canceled NHL2Nite last year. Even if there had been a season, they would have showed even less games and they only would have aired on ESPN2. That's how bad things had gotten for the NHL. ABC didn't renew their contract with the sport, forcing the league to get a second-rate deal with NBC that wasn't even guaranteed; contingent on there being a season. What happens now? ESPN has an option on the NHL coming up later this year. Would you keep a dying sport when the two sides can't even get in the same room and finalize a new labor deal? It makes zero sense.

Not only has the sport suffered ratings-wise, but they can't even attract enough backers to help boost revenue. Combine that with a lack of promoting its stars and a decrease in scoring and the league was doomed. And now, they have the dubious distinction of becoming the only major sport to postpone an entire season. How can a league survive all that when it wasn't that popular to begin with? It beats me.

One can only hope that both the owners and players will realize the folly of their ways and do everything possible to make sure they don't lose anymore games for 2005-06. Without a new CBA, there can't even be an NHL Entry Draft. That means that the most regarded prospect, Sidney Crosby, since Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux doesn't even know when he'll be on an NHL roster. Not exactly the way a league wants to enter a new era.

Of course, with no season, the players have lost a lot of money that they'll never be able to earn back. Without one, players that signed one-year deals last summer will become free agents again. There could be a huge crop of UFA's whenever a new agreement is reached. All this uncertainty is not healthy for the sport. The best way to fix it is for both sides to lock themselves in a room and don't come out until a new deal is reached. The longer it goes, the worse it could be for everyone. They risk losing even more fans.

When the game returns, hopefully, they'll have a plan in place to fix the game itself. Bring back the tag-up rule creating more flow to a sport that's become a drag. They should also enforce obstruction penalties. Too often, players get away with tugging the game's best stars, making it increasingly difficult for them to score. We're not saying that good backchecking and attention to detail should be tossed out. But any player who grabs another player is preventing them from making a play. That shouldn't be allowed to happen. Another area that needs to be addressed will be the regulation of smaller goalie pads. Too often, goalies wear pads that make them bigger and take up more space in net, leaving little room for scorers. We're not advocating keeping goalies from playing pucks. If a goalie has a natural puckhandling skill, they should be permitted to utilize it because if they're not, it restricts them. That's not good for the game.

Other topics have included no-touch icing and going to shootouts to decide ties. On both issues, I'm against it. Sometimes in games, attacking players will race to try to keep a play alive before an opponent touches up the puck for icing. By shifting to an automatic whistle, those kinds of hustle plays will no longer be rewarded. Doesn't that take away from the competitive nature of the game? In my book, it does. Shootouts are being tried out in the American Hockey League (AHL) this season. It's been met with mixed feedback. While some fans are entertained and know someone will be a winner, players and coaches do not like it because their teams can lose out on a valuable point for something that is basically street hockey. What if your team worked really hard and deserved to share a point with an opponent but the opponent won the shootout and gained an extra point? How is that justifiable? This is something we'd like to see the NHL hierarchy answer. Of course, with the way they have handled the last decade, their answer might not make much sense.

It's time for the game to give back to the fans. Don't make radical changes that will tarnish the sport. Make tweaks in rules that will allow for more skating, less holding and hooking creating more room and less whistles. Most importantly, whenever the game returns, ticket prices should be lowered at least 10-20 percent due to the loss of this season. Without loyal fans, the game wouldn't survive.

Hopefully, the next time the puck is dropped, everyone involved will have learned a valuable lesson. It's a long road back.


Blogger Vanwarinator said...

Atleast you can still play NHL video games

12:07 AM  

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