By Steve Lichtenstein
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Like all metropolitan area hockey fans, I was looking forward to the scheduled start of a new season next week. Unfortunately, my worst nightmares since the New Jersey Devils skated home from their valiant run to the Stanley Cup Finals proved prescient. The NHL, in its infinite idiocy, made the announcement yesterday of the first of likely many game cancellations due to the owner’s lockout.
It was not exactly shocking news, buried amongst the soccer results on sports newscasts and websites. After all, the two men in charge are known for laughing in the face of Armageddon. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has already locked out the players twice before, including an unprecedented full-season squandering in 2004-05.
And Donald Fehr committed the worst of all sins in my opinion (and will never be forgiven) when he had Major League Baseball players QUIT about two-thirds into the 1994 season, thereby nixing the World Series for the only time in the game’s history. At that time, the New York Yankees were not the postseason locks of recent vintage. They were on the verge of breaking a 12-year playoff drought when Fehr blew it all up.
So while I won’t equate the owner’s insane proposals to undo contracts and maintain the current inadequate revenue sharing with the players’ refusal to accept their status in the sports landscape, I have no sympathy for Fehr. He was hired specifically for his ferocity after past union leaders surrendered faster than the French in World War II.
Bettman certainly won’t cave any time soon. The owners have been preparing for this since they signed the last collective bargaining agreement. They are receiving about $300 million in advances from their television partners NBC and CBC whether or not games are actually played. While they can’t agree on how to split the revenue pie amongst themselves, they seem to be unanimous in making sure the players get no larger share than an amount such that the smaller-market teams can still earn a profit. The big markets would be free to gorge on the rest of the pie.
The problem with this, as WFAN’s Mike Francesa once said, is that the players are also the product. No one roots for the Rangers because of James Dolan. In fact, with all the evil that Dolan has exhibited through his years of running Cablevision and Madison Square Garden entities, fans would be grateful if Bettman continued any gag order if and when games resume.
Of course, the players could go a long way towards a settlement if they moved closer to the 50/50 revenue split that seems to be the consensus fair dichotomy among pundits. They need to recognize that despite the league’s revenue growth, the NHL can’t keep saving one franchise after another from bankruptcy. Unfortunately, that is not Fehr’s concern. He is paid to win.
In the meantime, about 100 NHL players have fled the continent to earn a living. With every NHL press release, that number could grow to the 400 or so who played in Europe during the last lockout. About a quarter of thelLeague, including many of the top stars, was born outside North America, so the adjustment to Europe is not as uncomfortable for them as it was for, say, Deron Williams to play in Turkey.
So where are fans like me supposed to turn to get their hockey fixes? Well, two of my favorite New York Islanders, center John Tavares and defenseman Mark Streit, are keeping fresh in Switzerland playing for something called Schlittschuh Club Bern, in Bern, Switzerland. Rick Nash is also in Switzerland, where New York Rangers fans hope that the newly-acquired forward is getting proper treatment for a shoulder injury.
I wish it were that simple. You would think that the European clubs would have had some foresight and been aggressive to pick up untapped market share by doing things like setting up English-language websites so that our fans can keep tabs on certain players. With the players spread out over different countries and leagues, there’s not enough clamoring to put any of those games on U.S. television. Even with sports networks loaded with hunting and bull riding content.
That’s what makes our sports scene special. The leagues may be monopolies, but that’s because the public wants it that way. We want the best players in the world together in one cage. The salaries are high enough and xenophobia low enough that the leagues are not limited to homegrown talent. Pro soccer has never been more than a niche market here, partially because we understand that our MLS Cup winner might not be better than a Second-Division English Premier League club. The world’s superstars can also be found competing in leagues in Spain, Italy and Germany.
NHL fans are also more team-centric than player idolizers. In my area, I know of many who root for the Boston Red Sox, Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bulls. I don’t know any Detroit Red Wings fans. More than other sports, hockey fans “root for laundry,” as Jerry Seinfeld once joked. One team’s annoying pest is instantly showered with affection when that player is traded to your team. Ilya Kovalchuk puts me on the edge of my seat when he races down the wing in a Devils game, but I really don’t care how productive he is for SKA St. Petersburg.
Unfortunately, that means that fans like me are stuck with the pigs at the table. Maybe the players will put the Fehr of total annihilation into the NHL owners’ heads, thereby wiping out the millions of dollars invested in worthless franchises. The NHL and the Stanley Cup are iconic brands, but so was Lehman Brothers. Errors in judgment and arrogance can take down NHL owners just as well.
Until that happens, I have no choice but to join other hockey fans in waiting for this to sort out. It’s too bad that, even with the reality television boom, the boardroom games are no substitute for the ones on the ice.
NHL fans, how are you handling your hockey withdrawal with no regular-season games in sight? Let us know in the comments section below…