Let the talks begin now

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:44 AM ET

Now that National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman has pulled the plug on the 2004-05 season, what comes next?

Even though Bettman said he wants work on next season to start immediately, there are many who expect the two sides to wander off to their respective enclaves for a seven-month hiatus before getting back together to stare each other down once again.

That may happen. But if it does, then a plague should fall on both their houses.

The NHL has a lot more problems than those of an economic nature. Let's not forget that before the owners' lockout started hogging the spotlight, there were complaints about many aspects of the game. The dearth of creativity. The low scoring. The lack of acceptance in the United States. The inordinately long season. The uncertainty about Olympic participation. Poor scheduling. Need we go on?

Many of the league's problems fall under one umbrella. The game needs to be revamped so that when it does resume, it will have some appeal to fans who want to see the stars play, not just to those self-proclaimed purists who think it's entertaining to watch the skill-killers shut down those stars.

To its credit, the NHL has made some progress in this area. Vice-president Colin Campbell has been working on rule changes and, finally, the league has seen the light and agreed that the people who play the game should have some input into the rules they play under.

The two sides should therefore put aside the economic issues that have proved to be so insurmountable, and work together on all the other problems that plague the game.

That way, when the salary matters are finally resolved -- as they will be at some point -- everything else will be in place.

Bettman has said that the league will not start play until the new collective bargaining agreement, in its entirety, has received the scrutiny of lawyers on both sides, and has been duly approved. Play will not resume under a mere letter of intent as it did the previous time.

Considering the speed at which lawyers work -- they charge their exorbitant fees by the hour after all -- that process alone could delay the return by weeks.

So instead of wasting seven months, the two sides should immediately get to work on all the peripheral issues.

The league has been saying that it wants a partnership with the players. Granted that's a ridiculous suggestion since the owners can't even be partners with each other. If they could, they'd have revenue sharing.

But that aside, if the league wants to try to be partners with the players, what better way than to work together to create a game that can be accepted?

This league also needs a modern marketing program, something that will help bring back the hockey mystique that existed 10 years ago when the game was all the rage and appeared to be on the verge of soaring in popularity.

IMAGE IMPORTANT

We live in an era where an ounce of image is worth a ton of talent. If people can be led to believe that pro basketball has some allure, they surely can be led to believe that hockey is exciting and entertaining.

If the NHL is to come back next season, advertisers need to be courted. The June draft needs to be held to avoid the plethora of lawsuits that will result if it disappears and the NHL tries to reinstate it. Television schedules need to be drawn up. Season-ticket and box holders need to be brought back into the fold.

FACING IGNOMINY

You can't do all this at the last minute and have a successful return.

This league is facing ignominy. It simply cannot afford to let lethargy set in for the next seven months.

The season has been declared dead. Now it's time to work on the next season -- as quickly as possible. The game depends on it.


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