SUN Hockey Pool

The NHL we loved is gone

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

We do not pretend to know what will happen between the NHL and the NHLPA prior to tomorrow's 1 p.m. deadline.

There have been too many fake deadlines, too much spin and far too many lies.

This much we can predict: If the NHL season dies tomorrow, the game changes for good.

The risks are so severe, the chance for a full recovery so remote, the complexities so Byzantine, there is absolutely no telling what will happen to the league should NHL commissioner Gary Bettman pull the plug.

That said, the limited picture that can be seen from this side of the abyss should scare the hell out of both sides.

If he casts the game into an indefinite lockout, Bettman moves the playing field from the negotiating room to the courts. He shouldn't expect any more luck there.

REPLACEMENT PLAYERS

Even if he could use the threat of replacement players to bring back current NHLers, the victory would be Pyrrhic.

The CBA is only part the game's problems. Fixing the game with wide-ranging rule changes depends on the goodwill of the players. You can't bludgeon the help and expect them to smile while they usher in your great new era.

The NHL could disappear under the breakers of its own labour woes. The league, its owners will tell you, lost $224 million US in 2003-04. Beset by similar problems but with a much broader presence, the NBA nearly disappeared from the sports landscape in 1979.

The league has a host of nearly new facilities and corresponding lines of credit that seem destined to be called in. Let see, you have a game that has proven so universally unpalatable to American viewers that it can't outdraw five-pin bowling. The owners are saddled with expensive arenas, no game and no timetable to return to business. If you're a bank, would you not want your money back?

Annihilation, either of Bettman career or of the entire league, is suddenly in play.

There will be a successor to the NHL. The World Hockey Association survived eight seasons of direct competition with the NHL, and that was back in the days when the NHL actually played games. Also, the vast resources of European hockey countries had yet to be tapped. There are more available players than ever before.

You need seven arenas, 10 or so solid NHLers and an entertaining product to put a deathhold on the NHL. It can happen.

The players, meanwhile, are looking at an equally bleak scenario.

Rumours have begun to circulate about a planned scorched-earth policy in which Bettman and the owners convene a great schism that cleaves the current big money players out of the game. They would be replaced by scores of players damned pleased to be working for $600,000 U.S.

If the owners succeed in bringing in scabs, the union will be decimated. The league's dismal profile in the United States can even work in ownership's favour. Why not stay out to get the best deal? The new clientele, won over with cheaper tickets and a new wide-open style probably won't even remember the old game.

The deadline, mercifully, is at hand. The game is at the precipice. The jump won't kill the sport. The landing, whenever it is, just might.


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