Catering to wrong crowd

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

The National Hockey League had a chance yesterday to salvage not only its season, but also its future and perhaps even its very existence. Instead, in a march of folly that guarantees its reduction to cult-sport status -- a process that already was well under way -- it chose to blow off the attempts of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and, in the process, dash the hopes of its fans, a segment of society that dwindles in size with each passing day.

A deal was there to be made yesterday. Neither side really wanted a salary cap in the $45-million US range, but such is the nature of negotiations -- and the settlements that terminate those negotiations.

However, the league introduced so many peripheral demands that the concept of mutual capitulation at the $45-million level never even got discussed.

As a result, the two great hockey virtuosos of our generation, Gretzky and Lemieux, left in despair, their attempts to save the game they love thwarted by the lawyers, the financiers and the investors.

The NHL Players' Association came to New York thinking that because the league had asked for a meeting, a new proposal was to be forthcoming.

But instead of driving ahead in the hope of making progress, the league chose to go backwards, introducing demands that had never before seen the light of day.

It soon became apparent, as the NHLPA's senior director Ted Saskin said afterwards, that "the areas of disagreement are far more profound than we originally thought."

MORE DIFFICULT

Why would the NHL intentionally make a settlement more difficult to achieve? Unfortunately, the answer is not that difficult to devine.

The league's strategy is being determined not by its successful teams, but by its losers, the teams that, because of the poor fiscal decisions of their owners, have moved into non-hockey markets, have signed players they couldn't afford and have made the kind of financial mistakes that in any other business are a fast track into receivership.

As a result of their own mismanagement, these teams have made sure that they are unprofitable when they're shut down, but even more unprofitable when they're in business.

Yet these are the people to whom commissioner Gary Bettman listens when he devises his strategy.

If you believe the PA, a majority of teams wanted to accept its offer last week. But because Bettman needs only eight votes if he recommends rejection, the majority failed.

Even if you don't believe the union, it is clear that Bettman's approach to negotiations is determined by owners who either lose money in small markets -- such as Carolina and Nashville --or have destroyed the fan base in large markets, such as Chicago and Boston.

BRUSHED OFF

The league's winners -- Philadelphia, Colorado, Detroit, Vancouver, Toronto and so on -- are brushed off so that the likes of Carolina, Nashville and Ottawa can have a league that operates in accord with their parsimonious leanings.

The NHL is supposed to be a major professional league. If a team wants to operate on a minor-league shoestring, then perhaps it shouldn't be in a major league.

There is a Russian proverb which says that a small man doesn't grow any taller by chopping off the legs of giants.

The NHL should be building a league that caters to its successful teams, not its losers. It should be devising a system that requires those successful teams to contribute to the success of the weak sisters so that the Senators and the others can be part of a prosperous league and thereby prosper themselves.

Instead, the NHL has shut down the profitable franchises for a season, thereby drastically reducing the profile of all its teams and putting its very existence in jeopardy.

And all for the sake of the losers.


Videos

Photos