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September 16, 2004 - NHL deserves to be put on ice

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NHL deserves to be put on ice

VOORHEES, N.J. - The appropriate metaphor for the sad state of the NHL presented itself late Wednesday morning at the Skate Zone.

A group of current and former Flyers had gathered to get in one last workout before commissioner Gary Bettman's official and inevitable announcement that the league would lock out its players. Keith Primeau, John LeClair and the rest packed their bags, answered reporters' questions, and left. The lights above the ice of the Flyers' practice rink were still on, but before long the entire locker-room area was empty.

Then, at 11:54 a.m., the lights were shut off. The rink was dark. No one was there.

In all likelihood, there will be no 2004-05 NHL season, and truth be told, there shouldn't be. Both sides, the NHL's owners and players, deserve this lockout. They deserve the months of embarrassment because they comprise a league without an identity, without a long-term vision, with only a shortsightedness that always short-circuits any attempt to move into the mainstream.

When there's a way to blunder, the NHL usually finds it - its blind expansion southward and westward, its annual changing of the sport's rules, its indecision whether to shed or embrace hockey's cartoonish connection with fighting. Now we have this lockout, certain to last a long, long time, as the latest example of the league's ineptitude.

Why will it last so long? Because the owners can wait and the players have one demand from which they will not relent. Their pockets bleeding green from rising player salaries, the owners can still afford to go without the games and their millions longer than the players can. They have proposed the institution of a hard salary cap. The players are united, above all else, against a hard salary cap.

Hence, an impasse that will be immovable for months. Maybe years.

"We don't want to be limited because of a system," said Flyers defenseman Eric Desjardins, 35, who missed most of last season with various injuries. "You see it all the time in (the NFL) - good players being cut just because financially they don't fit under the cap. There are no guaranteed contracts. Look at me. I would be gone. I would be home."

Bettman and the owners, of course, counter that there is no money to be made, and eventually there will be no league to support, because salaries are so high. Twenty of the league's 30 teams, Bettman said in a press conference Wednesday, are losing money. Yet, by demanding a salary cap, the owners are asking for a full-proof plan to guard against their own mistakes and miserliness.

Remember: It was the owners themselves who drove up the prices on players, and to what end? Small-market teams - Calgary, Tampa Bay, Vancouver - have succeeded without a salary cap. In New York, the Rangers have become pro sports' greatest laughingstock, spending and spending to miss the playoffs for seven straight seasons. In Chicago, Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz is so cheap that he doesn't allow his team's home games to be televised locally, for fear that the broadcasts would cut into ticket sales. How would a hard cap help these nincompoops?

"We understand where salaries have gone in the last 10 years, and we're willing to make concessions to put a real drag on salaries," Primeau said. "That's where we need to make it a partnership."

But the players have to give some, too. Desjardins, for instance, pooh-poohed the notion of revenue-sharing as a solution, saying it was no different from a salary cap.

"I don't see a rich team giving $1 million or $2 million to a team that's trying to beat you," he said. "I don't see too many owners in our league who are willing to do that. ... I don't think Comcast would want to help Montreal or Calgary."

Desjardins essentially endorsed the position that owners should be allowed to spend whatever they want "to win championships," and why wouldn't he endorse that position? For the last decade, he has played for one of the few NHL franchises that spends all it can in pursuit of the Stanley Cup, in one of the few American cities with a fan base that actually supports the sport.

Sure, big-market owners might not want to help their smaller-market brethren, but for the sake of the solvency of a 30-team league, they may not have a choice. Without some form of revenue-sharing, certain franchises will have to fold, and the NHL players' union will have contributed to the loss of many of its own members' jobs.

Where the blame lies is, to a degree, irrelevant, because aside from certain cities, such as Philadelphia, the NHL itself is irrelevant. Its television ratings are barely higher than a teetotaler's blood-alcohol level. As damaged as Major League Baseball was by the 1994 strike, this lockout will inflict a greater wound on the NHL. Interest in hockey is already so low in this country, few will even know it's gone.

The rink is dark today, and so is the future.