Wednesday, September 15, 2004

A most unwanted day finally arrives

Perhaps it’s fitting that the image projected by Gary Bettman today was that of an undertaker. Bettman who always gives one the impression of being the guy at the funeral home handing out the programs; lay to rest the hopes and dreams of hockey fans across Canada and some parts of the USA today.

At 2:30 pm New York time, he put on his most serious face, intoned in a sorrowful tone that it was his “sombre duty to report that NHL teams will not play at the expiration of the CBA until we have a new system which fixes the economic problems facing our game,"

And with that, he opened up the floor to questions and spent over an hour basically blaming the players and their spiritual leader Bob Goodenow for all that ails the sport today. Claiming that the union is in denial, Bettman rehashed the various arguments made of late about massive club losses, while salaries have skyrocketed out of sight.

Basically drawing a line in the ice, Bettman said the league would effectively be closed down until the owners have a system in place that will fix the problems with their game.

The announcement was covered by all three sports networks in Canada as well as the CBC Newsworld and CTV Newsnet news channels. All of the sports networks featured a panel to examine the announcement, suggesting that the declaration meant that hockey fans in North America will be without the NHL for quite a while. And when it comes back it may not resemble the game we remembered last spring and celebrated Tuesday night.

Bob Goodenow followed the Bettman performance with his own announcement, expressing disappointment at the turn of events, and blaming intransigent owners for all the problems. Claiming the union has made many proposals that should have avoided the scenario played out on Wednesday.

With these two sides so far apart, one tends to believe those who feel this is going to be a long, nasty and eventually bitter disruption, with no winners and losers all around. If the feedback from day one of the dispute is any indication, so far its advantage Bettman, Canadian fans siding with the League's position in a poll taken by Ipsos-Reid. As long as the League feels the public understands its stand, don't expect them to back down, or give in on their main point of cost certainty.

As the two sides hurled themselves towards today’s version of Hockey Armageddon, there have been numerous articles pointing out just how much peril the game has been in over the last few years.

Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe has put together a story on how the game in the US won’t be “fixed” until the CBA issue is taken care of. Considered a peripheral sport in all but the most rabid American hockey cities, Dupont suggests that with the number of distractions for the American hockey fan such as the NFL season and the baseball playoffs, many Americans may not even notice that hockey is missing until a two week window in February. Give up any thoughts of public pressure becoming a force to get these two sides back to the table.

The Christian Science Monitor examines the financial implications of the labour dispute, but not how it affects the teams or the players. Rather The Monitor looks at how the bar owners, hotel keepers and television networks will suffer with hockey banished for the foreseeable future.

Adrian Dater of the Denver Post compares the two sides to Rush Limbaugh and James Carville in a room together, magnifying their bluster and bravado by tenfold. That says Dater is the atmosphere in which the NHL and the NHLPA approach the labour issue. And he’s probably not too far off the mark, the last week prior to this black day has been filled with vitriolic rhetoric, basically setting up entrenched positions from which there apparently is now no middle ground.

Newsday from New York wraps up our little tour of bad news, featuring Alan Hahn with a well researched article on the ailments of the NHL. Hahn traces the troubled television deals of Fox, ABC and ESPN in the US, the expansion program put forward by Gary Bettman that brought the NHL to the likes of Nashville, Atlanta and Anaheim, as well as allowing relocation to Carolina. Those are all areas now where the teams are suffering terribly at the gate and in the case of Nashville, Atlanta and Anaheim the owners are desperately trying to unload their teams. It paints a picture of a league in a terrible amount of trouble, much of it self inflicted. With a situation in place now, where they have nothing to lose by keeping the league’s thirty rinks dark, the prospect of a quick resolution to this mess is slim.

Watch the TV replays of today’s announcement, Mr. Bettman’s words and body language certainly seemed funeral like. All that was missing was the soft organ music playing underneath, the quiet crowd gathered murmuring in respect. We all have nice things to say about the recently departed.

“It was such a nice game, always so much fun to be around. It passed on far too soon. It’s so sad that nobody could step in before it was too late.”

And then the undertaker leaves the room, a sense of finality settles in, for a game that may have changed forever today.

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