NHL has few fans to push resolution

Posted: Thursday, December 16, 2004

The NHL is disappearing right before our eyes, and the reason is simple.

Almost nobody has a dog in this fight.

You expect fans to lose interest whenever billionaires battle millionaires, but not to the extent they have in the dogfight between the NHL and players over a new collective bargaining agreement.

More than half the Americans polled by The Hockey News were surprised to learn the league hasn't even opened for business this season. That number is considerably lower north of the border, but even there — if you take much-traveled pro and amateur comedian Brett Hull at his word — fans are learning to make do without the NHL.

The Phoenix Coyotes star turned up on the ''Weekend Update'' segment of ''Saturday Night Live'' and was asked, as a Canadian, what he thought about the recent landmark ruling by Canada's Supreme Court that gay marriage was constitutional.

''That's what happens in Canada when there's no hockey,'' Hull said. ''Guys have more time to hang out, talk about their feelings, next thing you know they're in love with each other.

''I've got nothing against it,'' he added, ''but I'd rather be playing hockey.''

Chances that Hull will get his wish any time soon took a serious hit Tuesday. After months of avoiding each other like a rash, the second negotiating session between management and labor in a week lasted just 3 1/2 hours. Commissioner Gary Bettman didn't find the words ''salary cap'' anywhere in the proposal from the players' union, inserted them in a counterproposal and handed it back an hour later. The players reacted to that addition pretty much the way they always have.

''Put simply,'' NHLPA chief Bob Goodenow said, ''our proposal provides the basis for a negotiated agreement. The NHL's does not.''

Afterward, both sides retreated to their corners and resumed praying for a bolt of lightning to strike the other.

When Bettman took the job as commissioner fresh off a stint as NBA boss David Stern's right hand, few people took seriously his pledge to put hockey on an equal footing with the other major team sports. And if the work stoppage careens out of control a little longer, Bettman will have surpassed major league baseball, the NFL and the NBA — just not in the way he, or anyone else, envisioned.

Pro hockey is on the verge of becoming the first North American sports league to cancel a full season because of a labor dispute. By this point in previous negotiations, fans would have chosen sides, with the resulting public pressure forcing one or the other — or both — to make meaningful concessions. The only thing apathy has done is make both sides more cynical.

On its face, the players' latest move was impressive. It proposed to roll back salaries by 24 percent, throw in a luxury tax and revenue sharing, lower the cap on entry-level contracts and bonuses, and provide arbitration. Under it, third-line centers wouldn't be making $9 million a year and the New Jersey Devils' payroll wouldn't be $60 million but closer to $46 million.

''This is no grandstanding ploy,'' Goodenow said last week. ''This is no P.R. move.''

That's exactly what it was. He knows that salaries consume more than 70 percent of revenues and more important, that Bettman wasn't about to consider an agreement that didn't fix the owners' costs at much closer to 50 percent.

The commissioner, on the other hand, hasn't wavered from the start. He acknowledged one more time that any savings from the players' plan would be squandered by his owners, likely after a season and another round or two of free-agent bidding wars. And he's right.

The only way to short-circuit that process, as the NFL and NBA have learned at great expense, is with a salary cap. Baseball, though, staggers from one negotiation to the next without a cap in place, and that's the model Goodenow has in his sights.

''We believe that every team has a salary cap,'' he said. ''It's called a budget.''

Bettman and Goodenow have about a month to get realistic before the season is lost. But because neither side feels the fans at its back, there's no sense of urgency to make a decisive move. The closest thing to an encouraging word was uttered by Hull, and it wasn't much.

''I think with the basketball riots and the steroids in baseball,'' he said, ''I think hockey is looking classier all the time.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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