Wednesday, October 13, 2004

No puck to drop, No skates to sharpen, No hockey tonight!

October 13 would have been opening night for the NHL, had the current labour dispute not rendered the schedule makers work an exercise in wishful thinking. Instead, the rinks remain dark, the negotiations nothing but a distant memory. Instead of the banter of the talking heads about which team improved itself over the off season, we instead hear the latest update on who has processed a passport for Europe. Which owner has laid off arena staff or how the TV networks plan to fill the suddenly huge holes in their schedules.

Hockey in Canada in the fall of 2004 is left to the junior leagues, the college game, and an assortment of minor pro teams in wide spaced locales and of course the early morning practices and late night games of minor hockey and shift worker hockey.

The players sit on their savings and go for a skate on European surfaces, the owners claim they’re not losing as much as if when were actually putting teams on the ice. So with no sense of urgency we just sit back and wait for Ron McLean to introduce the Movie Night in Canada selection of the week. Perhaps a double bill of Slap Shot and Wall Street might be a solid choice for this Saturday!

Brian Burke offered up a solution which was politely received and just as quickly discarded. TSN put together a comprehensive report on the state of hockey and how to fix it, thanks for the memories went the refrain from the league. The lock out will continue until the “financials of the game, make sense”.

With no pucks being dropped this opening night, we are faced with the very real prospect of not having any NHL for the entire year. The owners don’t seem in any hurry to meet the players, nor the players anxious to meet the owners. And if the development from Tuesday is any indication, the chance of the two sides re-uniting any time soon are slim and none.

Nashville Predators part owner (33%), Steve Belkin , stirred up the pot with his declaration that the NHL would operate next year with replacement players if the NHLPA has not agreed to a new contract by then. The hornets nest knocked over by Belkin, sets the tone for the opening week commemoration, quickly turning into a eulogy.

For its part the NHL fined Mr. Belkin $250,000 for his thinking out loud session, suggesting that he does not speak for the league or his fellow owners. Translation: some people need to learn that loose lips sink ships!

The league stated that Mr. Belkin has only been an owner for the last four months and thus was most likely only stating his own personal opinion as to what he would do in our situation. The use of replacement players might be an easier to achieve goal in the USA than in Canada, where provincial law governs labour matters and can vary from province to province. One suspects that Mr. Belkin probably isn’t even aware that there are six Canadian franchises in the league let alone what their legal and governmental issues may be. But the perception is now out there that the NHL plans to wait this out as long as it takes and if it means playing with replacements or even starting a whole new league, then all options are apparently being considered.

Opening night in the NHL is normally a night full of hope, every team goes into the game undefeated, every team hoping to be the next Tampa Bay Lightning and raise a banner to the roof in celebration of a Stanley Cup victory the season before.

This opening night the banner is on hold, the season is on hold and indeed a national sport and national passion seems on hold as well. What remains to be seen is if the fans will still hold that passion in a year from now, it’s a dangerous risk the owners and players are taking, one wonders if they’ve considered that in all of their bluffing, blustering and scheming.

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