The Bright Side of Armageddon

I was wrong about the National Hockey League lockout.

That's a hard pill for me to swallow, because I was convinced that this was all for the best. That the very fate of the NHL — at least in the short term — hung in the balance. That, finally, owners were taking responsibility for their financial foibles. As I said last week: "You can't fault a crackhead for being a crackhead if he's at least trying to put the pipe down for once."

Well, after the NHL cancelled the 2004-05 season on Wednesday, here's the truth of the matter: those crackheads weren't weaning themselves off the rock; they were merely looking for a cheaper dealer.

"Cost certainty?" My ass. This was about breaking a union that had been strong enough to humble the owners the last time they dueled. This was about correcting the owners' own mistakes by making the players suffer for them. This was asking players, agents, and most importantly the fans to put their faith in a group of people that haven't shown the aptitude to turn a profit running a lemonade stand, let alone a professional sports league.

I grew up in a union house. I attended college thanks to a union, and my parents receive annual medical attention because of a union. When my father would be out of work for months on end, it was the union that assisted him in finding new employment in his industry of choice. It disgusts me when corporate whores paint unions as money siphons or mobbed-up machines that are determined to ruin the economy. Tell that to a guy who wouldn't be able to pay for his son's surgery if not for the health coverage his union fought for its constituents to receive.

Now, compared to the real world, sports business is a wonderful fairyland of gumdrops and unicorns. Half the players in the NHL don't have to worry about health coverage; they could buy a hospital if they wanted to. The NHL Players' Association has the same aim as other labor unions, but due to the elephantine economics of professional sports that aim isn't as true as, say, a steelworker union's might be.

Still, it was hard for me, at first, to side with NHL ownership against the union until I convinced myself that their efforts were noble.

Now I see their motivations were sinister, traitorous, and undermined the very league they were trying to save.

Don't even call this a negotiation. The players were collectively bargaining; the owners were, collectively, a statue. If I had told you back in September that the players would, at one point, offer a salary cap of $49 million, a substantial luxury tax starting at $40 million, and a 24-percent rollback on current salaries, would you have thought the NHL owners fools for not accepting the deal?

I would have, and I do today.

But this wasn't about cutting a fair deal for both employees — whose only sin was cashing the checks management cut for them — and NHL owners. It was about correcting the league's finances in such a dramatic and overbearing way that the union would fracture. And with the cancellation of the season, it appears Gary Bettman's mission is accomplished, especially in light of the rumors flying about a splinter cell of players attempting to broker their own deal with the league.

There are two great misconceptions in this lockout. The first is that the players are somehow "greedy." Yeah, so greedy that they were willing to give back a quarter of their money and cap future earnings. The players aren't just the employees, they are the product. That's something I missed in the last few months of the lockout. It's easy to say that it's all about the uniform, or that the "stars" in the league have had little impact on television ratings. But when Colorado comes to town, I pay to see it play because of the quality of its talent. The inverse is true in regards to teams like the Wild, which might play a tight game with the home team, but lack the individual pizzazz of other clubs.

The second misconception is that this lockout was vital to the survival of the league, which simply isn't true. It was vital to the survival of certain teams in the league, because this bloated monster that is the NHL doesn't have enough revenue to sustain 30 teams.

"The bottom line to it is there are teams that have losses and teams that have profits. That doesn't mean we don't recognized a change was in order," said NHLPA poobah Bob Goodenow on WFAN in New York this week. "You have to look at the league-wide situation."

Damn right you do. And that means looking at small-market teams and big market teams (like the Islanders) that aren't financially solid enough to compete and/or turn a profit, no matter where the salary bar is set. These teams should be eliminated. Contracting the league concentrates talent and reduces the number of teams that need revenue-sharing handouts.

Of course, when you're only paying out $90 million of a $2 billion pie to your teams, there isn't a lot of revenue sharing to begin with.

Okay, enough with the doom and gloom. Assuming the season remains canceled — and that means assuming a magical coalition of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy doesn't come up with a CBA in the next 24 hours to "save" the season — it's time to look on the bright side of life.

(And with the news coming late Thursday night, I might regret that Easter Bunny comment.)

Twenty Good Things About a Canceled Hockey Season

1. Both Bob Goodenow and Gary Bettman will be out of a job when this is over. Goodenow because too many players feel he botched the negotiation, and the union needs new leadership to solidify again. Bettman — according to the scuttlebutt — as a sacrifice to the players who absolutely despise him. Here's a thought: on the day Bettman hands in his letter of resignation, change the conference and division names back to normal and drop the instigator rule. Nothing the Board of Directors could do would say, "Sorry, fans ... we don't know what that last 13 years were about, either" better than that.

2. The New York Rangers will not win the Stanley Cup this year.

3. Bobby Holik can focus on his career as a unibrow model.

4. Members of the Roenick family will finally feel our pain and beg Uncle Jeremy to Just. Shut. Up.

5. Players will be available for cameo appearances in the direct-to-video sequel, "Slap Shot 3."

6. KISS will have plenty of available arena dates for its latest "farewell" tour.

7. The Stanley Cup can be rented out to Lil' John as the ultimate pimp goblet.

8. Sidney Crosby, the resident next GretzkyMarioLindrosGordie super-rookie, will most likely sue the NHL if there's no Entry Draft this season to become an unrestricted free agent. At which point the Flyers and Red Wings will kidnap him, toss him in a room, lock the door, and keep throwing American dollars at him until he signs one of their contracts.

9. Matthew Barnaby can study for a law degree to go along with his mastery of labor negotiation tactics.

10. The chances for another concussion dramatically decrease for both Scott Stevens and Eric Lindros.

11. Television tech wizards will have extra time to fine-tune HDTV technology so viewers can watch clutching, grabbing, and teams not scoring in an entirely new way.

12. The Philadelphia Flyers will not win the Stanley Cup this year.

13. Sporting goods stores can finally pack away hockey sweaters, clearing space of the next generation of Texas Hold'em tables.

14. ESPN announcer Bill Clement can rent himself out to surgeons as a natural way to induce pre-op paralysis through his color commentary.

15. To help give hockey fans some semblance of normalcy, the Chicago Blackhawks will not appear in a playoff game.

16. Watching NHL owners explain to fans how a $15 ticket for scab hockey suddenly goes back to being an $85 ticket when the lockout ends, despite the presence of a hard cap and a rollback on salaries.

17. Hockey rumor bloggers can finally emerge from their mother's basement and hang out at the mall with the rest of the high-school sophomores.

18. Anaheim's GiggyPuff Marshmallow Goalie can rent his pads to NASA in order to catch the Hubbell when it falls to Earth.

19. Canadian hockey fans will have months to formulate reasons why Americans abominate/despise/undervalue/sully/wreck/embarrass/seek to destroy the sport.

20. Neither the New York Rangers nor the Philadelphia Flyers will win the Stanley Cup this year.

SportsFan MagazineGreg Wyshynski is also a weekly columnist for SportsFan Magazine. His columns appear every Saturday on Sports Central. You can e-mail Greg at [email protected].

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