After The Thaw: Whither Hockey?

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - July 20, 2005
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It appears, finally, to be over. After 301 days, the most idiotic labor dispute in history is history.

After a marathon 10-day session and a final meeting that lasted through the night, the NHL and its players’ union have finally figured out that nobody benefits when not playing.

No one will talk about the exact wording of the contract until everyone has signed off on it, but in a nutshell the agreement calls for a salary cap of about $37 million- $40 million with no one player able to receive more than 20 percent of that amount. Owners must spend at least $22 million-$25 million, and players’ salaries will be based on 54 percent of league revenue. Also included in the deal is a revamping arbitration, maximum salaries for rookies, increased revenue sharing and changes to rules on free agency.

Following negotiations,Wayne Gretzky, the managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, pretty much summed it up.

“At the end of the day, everybody lost,” he said. “We almost crippled our industry. It was very disappointing what happened.”

The Great One is right. Everybody messed this up.

Jeremy Roenick’s “if you blame us, screw you” tirade has come and gone, and with the exception of diehard fans in Canada, Minnesota and Michigan, no one much noticed.

That’s a problem. The game was shut down for an entire year and almost nobody cared. That has to change. There is a lot of kowtowing to be done and it has to begin now. Not just to the fanatics who will return, but more importantly to the casual fan who occasionally watches a game, buys a ticket and dusts off his Tampa Bay Lightning cap. Those are the ones who push any sport from stable to profitable.

Thankfully, the repairing has already begun. Pittsburgh and Dallas have already moved by reducing ticket prices. The Stars will make 500 seats available for $10, while Pittsburgh has cut prices from 6 to 46 percent. Expect most other clubs to fall into line.

A good start, but that’s not nearly enough. The league and players must come together to promote the game. Anytime you pick up the Sporting News or Time magazine and tune into ESPN and NBC you should see ads reminding people how exciting the game is and how much better it will be.

Earlier, USA Today reported the league was looking at rule changes to open up the game and make it more appealing. The result, thought up by the newly created rules committee of players, GMs and owners, is a list of 13 ideas they hope will make the game better.

Adding four teams to the post season is a bad idea. You’re not gonna make things better by adding more mediocre teams to the playoffs.

Eliminating the red lines and altering icing rules, however, will speed up the game and move it away from its relatively slow pace.

Ties could also go the way of the dinosaur, which is good. Ties suck. Get rid of them.

And putting a stop to the everincreasing size of goalie pads will increase scoring. Let’s be real about this. No player should be able to cover 60 percent of the goal by merely standing in front of it.

Unfortunately, one final act to improve the league and ease fan stress unfortunately won’t happen: The firing of Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow. These two men, responsible for putting the game on the ice, have screwed up in every way possible. They turned labor negotiations into a spitting contest that at times did little but feed their own egos. NHL Commish Bettman is safe because he was the good Stepford wife and robotically did exactly what a group of owners wanted. Too bad they almost destroyed the league in the process.

At no time did Goodenow take any responsibility for putting the people he works for out of work. His job is a bit more shaky, but he’s probably safe because he will always have the owners to blame.

Do you remember when the first President Bush along with auto industry big wigs went to Japan in 1992 to try to get better access to its market? They claimed imports were hurting the American economy and its workers, while never admitting that General Motors was bringing more cars into the country than anyone else. Just like Gary and Bob, no one was willing to take responsibility for their own screw-ups.

But at least the game is back. Now the big question is who will get to draft Sidney Crosby?

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