SUN Hockey Pool

Will end prize be worth it?

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:38 AM ET

Four or five years ago, the words "armageddon" and "hockey" started popping up occasionally in the same sentences. Seemed a tad melodramatic at the time but -- guess what? -- we're starting to wonder just what will be left to salvage when the dust settles upon the nuclear winter of this botched collective bargaining process between the NHL and its players.

As the weeks and months have passed without any meaningful progress, two things have become evident.

One, the owners have resolved to play this game right to the end, no wilting at the 11th hour as always has been their tendency. They will get their cost certainty, their linkage of salaries to revenue, come hell or high water, even if they have to rip the guts out of the game to do it.

DANGEROUS

Two, the players have no end-game strategy, other than to wait for the owners to capitulate as they always have. It may not sound like much of a strategy but it has earned them a fortune over the years.

Now, this is dangerous from both perspectives. For the plan to work for the owners, there has to be something left to save at the end of the day. The only way to guarantee a season next year is to find a way to get some hockey played this year. That is crucial.

A tremendous amount of economic damage has already happened. This is no longer a $2-billion industry, which is the number everyone has been tossing around as a basis for revenue percentages, based upon 2003 numbers. How much smaller it is now than it was then is impossible to tell until they try to restart the engine.

If this season is declared a washout, then there will be no reason at all to resume talking again until next fall. Meaningful negotiations always require a deadline and once the 2004-05 season is declared cancelled, there is no deadline on the horizon. Both sides will retreat to their foxholes for the summer and perhaps deep into the autumn.

It's one thing to try to repair the damage of a half-season without hockey. It will be quite another thing to try to pick up the pieces after 18 months or even 28 months of darkened rinks. Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup on June 7, 2004. It's not ridiculous (well, yes it is, on second thought, but not impossible) to contemplate that the next NHL game might not be played until October of 2006, or beyond.

If no hockey is played this year and an agreement is not in place so that next season can begin in a normal fashion, ticket sales, marketing plans, advertising and promotional liaisons will be fractured, many of them beyond repair. This is especially so in cities where hockey is not part of the normal sports culture. Come to think of it, that includes about 20 out of 30 franchises.

Various corporate partners will hang tough for a year, but after that all bets are off. The business money is going to move on and so will many of the casual fans. In some cities, casual fans are the only fans they have.

The players' dogged determination not to live under a salary cap may seem like a high-minded principle but, let's face it, a percentage of something is better than a percentage of nothing. If they swallowed their misplaced pride and bought into the owners' plan today, they would come out with an average salary of something like $1.3 million.

By this time next year, if there is no agreement who knows what the shrinkage in the pot of cash will be?

JOBS WILL DISAPPEAR

And how many players' jobs will be lost? It's laughable to listen to second-tier players regurgitating Bob Goodenow's doctrine when the end result will be that their own jobs will disappear when the dust has settled.

Players, from the time they first began to skate, have been taught that there is nothing greater to aspire to than to be true to your teammates. In most respects it has made hockey players easy to admire for their selflessness.

By hanging together during the last couple of labour negotiations, they have reaped untold riches. The success born of solidarity apparently wasn't lost upon the owners, who have finally figured out that the all-for-one thing is a powerful tool.

They are going to win, it seems. But will the prize be worth it?


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