NHL's credibility drips away

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

When Gary Bettman pulls the plug tomorrow, it won't be just an NHL season going down the drain.

Into the sewer also go credibility, goodwill and a good piece of the game's future.

The NHL will never be the same again. It can't be because we've all learned a lesson.

It became apparent when the lockout ceased to be just another spat between wealthy athletes and wealthier owners and morphed into something more profound.

Growing angry at the owners and angrier at the players, fans began to question the relevance of their dedication. And former star Ken Dryden had it right.

With a pause for some introspection, many fans found the game was more a habit to them than a passion. There lies the daunting task that awaits all the principals now.

Not only will the Third World portion of the league have to begin at square one in rebuilding its modest core of fans, rich clubs predicated on full houses and popular TV broadcasts are now facing an equally challenging task.

A lot of fans are turned off by the stubbornness of two factions, along with their regular, boring updates about having nothing to report.

It could get worse before it gets better. If Bettman remains commissioner and Bob Goodenow head of the players' association, the first major league to abandon an entire season could go for an unassailable record of ignominy by remaining out right through next fall.

Both leaders must go, of course. Who is right and who is wrong is not an issue. In the world of high-stakes business, failure to achieve the stated objective is fatal.

Fan factions developed quickly and many polls indicate the players are held most culpable. Guys who earn in a year or two more than many of us earn in a lifetime present a large target.

The view here is any guilt on their part arises from an unquestioning acceptance of their leadership and that the most blame rests with the owners. They created the situation in the first place.

You can start with their mania to expand, to pocket huge sums of money in expansion fees while spreading the game across the U.S.

Creating a larger footprint, Bettman liked to say.

That was before the long stride wound up putting the league under its heel. The hoped-for U.S. national TV contract never materialized. Watering down of talent placed stress on quality. Disparity between the rich and poor teams grew.

Where the league blew it was a collective bargaining agreement, when it based its decisions on the direction the league was going but didn't. Then the rich teams began to throw the entire salary structure into chaos.

A good starting point was the moment the New York Rangers offered free agent Joe Sakic $21 million US over three years, or more than double what he was earning.

The Colorado Avalanche had the right to match it and did.

Given that benchmark, the spiral began for players of Sakic's stature, such as Jaromir Jagr, and boxcar bucks became the marketplace norm for superstars.

Do sports stars earn too much? Some players will agree they do. But like the rest of us, none feels inclined to earn less than what the market dictates.

Pro athletes like to ask the rhetorical question: "Know anybody who ever turned down a raise?"

I felt the 24-per-cent wage rollback offered by the players would be the ledge on which both parties would gain some footing. But it included no salary cap and was rejected.

Now with three-quarters of the schedule gone, the rest is going into the dumper, too.

How far behind are the two guys who, as the Brits refer to suicides, topped themselves with a salary cap?


Videos

Photos