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Feb. 22, 2005

Roller coaster weekend makes NHL look even worse

by Michael Bushnell, Page Editor
The NHL did it again. Incredible. And by incredible I mean absolutely disgraceful. That's what Saturday's labor meetings were to the sport that somehow made itself look even more inept and selfish than it was when the season got cancelled on Wednesday.

By early Saturday morning, it appeared a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was done, and that the NHL would rise from the dead to play a shortened season. The Hockey News magazine reported that a $45 million salary cap was agreed on, and that the meeting scheduled at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan was designed to have both sides sign and smile for the cameras.

ESPN had their own report as well, as did TSN, the cable sports cabal up in Canada. It all looked good; there was a meeting on Saturday, and even though the sides denied the reports, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mike Gartner were coming to join the talks. Why would these guys come if there was no deal done?

There were opinions all over the newspapers and Internet about how "the NHL would get the last laugh,” after "un-canceling” the season. It seemed like a good point; the players wanted this done when nobody else did. They wanted to play. It seemed like everything was in place, including the 9 a.m. meeting in New York.

I even wrote my editor to tell him that I would do a story about the "un-canceling” Saturday afternoon when it was announced. I even jokingly tried to bet some of my friends who didn't watch the NHL (which would be about 98.3% of them) that the league would come back this year, figuring that a deal was done.

I was the biggest optimist, even after Gary Bettman, the Commissioner, cancelled the season. I figured that there was no chance that the Stanley Cup wouldn't be won this year, and it appeared as if I was going to be right.

Even as late as 1 p.m., ESPNEWS was saying that a deal was "imminent.” There was word of a 3:15 press conference to announce the agreement, then a 6 p.m. announcement. I was out for some of the afternoon, but I wore my NHL shirt with pride. I told my dad, "this was like getting robbed, then waking up two days later and finding your wallet with 10 grand inside.”

Then every hockey fan got mugged again.

As I watched college basketball that afternoon at a restaurant in historic Bethesda, Maryland, I saw the ticker at the bottom say "NHL and NHLPA meet without any progress; no word on outcome of season.”


This wasn't happening. This couldn't possibly happen. Why would the two sides meet and not get a deal done? Why would Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux be brought in if there was no agreement? What was the point of the freaking' meeting in the first place?

Even now, on Monday, the details of the 6 ½ hour meeting aren't fully known. But what is known is that the two sides managed to anger every fan left of this sport. And granted, the sides never said a deal was done, only the media, which got it very wrong.

But why was there a meeting if there were no proposals? If it's true that the NHL wouldn't come off of their $42.5 million salary cap offer, why have a meeting? Why did the NHLPA not come ready with an offer? Why did the sides not try to work this out that evening or the following morning?

These questions make what happened Saturday so much more agonizing. Because we still don't know what exactly happened on Saturday. Apparently, owners in Boston, Nashville, Florida, and perhaps a couple other cities like Chicago and even Ted Leonsis in Washington, vetoed a deal to move the salary cap to $45 million. Other reports are that the league never even got that far, and that neither side came with a proposal.

It's just very frustrating to think what will happen now to the NHL. Fans all over North America have said that Saturday angered them even more than Wednesday, because it was even more of a letdown than ever before in these negotiations.

ESPN can opt out of their television deal with the league on April 15, and if there's no CBA by then, they very well could. And then where will the NHL go on National television? C-Span 2?

"It's the NHL on C-Span 2! With your hosts, Sam Rosen and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.)!!!”

I fear to think what the league will look like next year if the CBA isn't ratified before Memorial Day. We'll probably find out, seeing as how there's less incentive for the players to get a deal done now, because they won't get paid until October. The owners need a deal ASAP so they can sell tickets, sponsorships and media deals locally.

Speaking of media, this lockout may spell the end for a full 82-game TV schedule in most cities, including Washington, Raleigh and other cities that had a full deal. Why would a network like Fox Sports South pay tens of millions for rights fees if nobody wants to watch, or more importantly, nobody wants to pay thousands of dollars for advertisements?

If hockey fans were disappointed by the inevitable on Wednesday, they were angered by Saturday's inaction. I was in disbelief that they could meet without getting a deal done, especially when it looked closer than ever. The two sides would have made a compromise CBA, but something derailed the agreement.

Whether it was small-market owners ruining it for everyone else, an inept NHLPA at the meeting, or the fact that both sides got together as some sort of public relations attempt gone awry, we may never know.

But what is for sure is that the labor strife got even worse on Saturday, at least for the fans who had their emotions played with all weekend long by the two sides. My biggest fear is that Saturday may be the last time the spectators (the main source of revenue for this league) put up with the NHL.

I'm afraid of what the league will look like if I'm right.

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  • lol on February 22, 2005 at 7:36 PM
    Who cares about hockey.
  • re: lol on February 22, 2005 at 8:37 PM
    best watch out or someone's going to bodycheck you into the wall in the hallway
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