April 18, 2005
NHL owners losing itAny advantage they once held will be erased if they try to use replacements
By KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun
The leaks have been judiciously dispensed that tomorrow's hockey bargaining session in New York may produce a pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel.
Something new. Something special. Maybe they're going to agree on corned beef sandwiches instead of pizza for lunch.
These latest whispers are significant only if you believe anything that has been said -- quietly or shouted from the rooftops -- since this travesty of collective bargaining began.
Having dithered away much of their early advantage, the owners are now scrambling to avoid even more erosion of their position. It is believed that another hybrid proposal will be tabled to bridge the essential divisive issue dealing with whether salaries are to be linked to revenues.
Where that leads is anybody's guess. But one thing is certain: The NHL now needs an agreement, just as badly as do the players.
Three or four months ago, the NHL owners had a distinct advantage in this war of wills. Their solidarity confounded the players, who have always been accustomed to watching ownership's delicate resolve fracture under pressure. But Gary Bettman didn't seem to know how to play with a lead and the players have rallied late, depending upon your interpretation of "late."
April 15, the deadline for ESPN to exercise its option on hockey for next year, came and went silently. What exactly does that mean? Hard to tell. How could ESPN make a decision on whether to air a product until it has an idea what that product will be?
Which brings us to the real problem facing Bettman and his short-sighted pals. He claims there will be hockey next October, whether there is a collective bargaining agreement or not. If the owners go ahead with that goofy plan, they might as well just put the lid on the coffin and call it a day.
The concept of replacement players will never fly under any circumstances. In even the most naive market, it will insult the intelligence of paying customers. And that includes papering the house with free tickets.
First of all, where do you find 600 hockey players worthy of wearing an NHL uniform? Any player with half a brain and a dream of making it someday in the NHL is going to say no. The lockout is not going to go on forever and the replacements will be the most grisly casualty of all, shunned by the established players and not talented enough to make it not matter.
So, what are we talking about here: Senior A hockey players? Overage juniors not good enough for the AHL? Certainly not any AHL players who have a future. Overseas players? Beer league players? The good old boys from Mystery, Alaska?
People in Toronto wouldn't cross the street to watch such players, even if they were relatives.
That will be the same all over the league, one would have to guess. Most American markets are already lukewarm to the game played by the most talented players in the world. What are they going to think of a bunch of guys skating on their ankles?.
And when the great replacement players plan falls on its face, the owners will have frittered away any vestige of leverage in the negotiations. They will come crawling to the players, hat in hand, as usual.
So, even though there doesn't seem to be a hard deadline staring everyone in the face this week, if the owners have even a vague sense of the devastating reality that faces them next fall, they will treat these meetings with urgency.
The owners would be better off just extending the lockout rather than trying to peddle an unwatchable product to a resentful public. At least then there would still be some pressure on the real players to find a way to settle.
In a replacement situation, all the public sentiment that has warmed the hearts of the owners this past winter will flow to the players' side.
Whether this thing ends this week, this month or next year, there will be no winners. Not one. But the sooner it is resolved, the losing can stop.