Hockey long way from being in from the cold

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:25 AM ET

On the day the hockey lockout came to a merciful ending, after 300 nights of whine and neuroses, there were unknowing smiles almost everywhere.

And no one seemed to know exactly why.

Having been slaughtered in the most damaging fight in hockey history, having been sold out by their own union representatives on just about every issue they were instructed to believe in, players spoke bravely yesterday about rebuilding the game.

What else could they say after such a stunning defeat?

They talked about a new game and new rules and a new beginning and this sudden tentative partnership between players and owners. They did so with brave faces and their usual stirring lack of information. Not only did they lose a season's salary in the process but they must now relinquish 24% of their contracted money for the year that is to come: A new starting point for players, a new starting line for the back-in-business National Hockey League.

In simple terms, commissioner Gary Bettman negotiated by holding his breath, but in the end it was the players who turned blue.

They fought against a salary cap and lost.

They fought against linkage to league revenues and lost.

They offered up their own 24% solution -- only to have it turned against them. If union head Bob Goodenow had any integrity at all, he would resign his position immediately.

But he doesn't and he won't and in the end his players settled for table scraps from a league that wasn't able to offer up anything more.

In the NHL of the past, owners happened to be willing but not necessarily able. This time, they would be neither. Now a deal has been done that polices managerial stupidity and should eliminate economic suicide -- but it doesn't do a whole lot more than that.

This is a sport severely injured by its own incompetence, a league with a reputation in tatters, overpriced tickets, television disinterest and an on-ice product that even the players insist is in need of severe alteration.

Other than that, nothing is wrong.

Back in December, commissioner Bettman was asked: "What now?"

"That's a great question," Bettman answered.

It's still a great question, but without any real answer. To understand the staggered state of this new NHL, all you have is juxtapose sports networks in two countries yesterday.

In Canada, the all-day television coverage began around noon and ended around midnight. It was all lockout all the time.

On American television, it was a few minutes on hockey and we take you to more Terrell Owens rumours. The popular ESPN program PTI began with the following words: "Sadly enough, we're starting our show with hockey."

By next week, when almost 400 NHL players become free agents, Canadians will be playing their own version of rotisserie league hockey from homes. This will be a summer feeding frenzy of hockey news unlike any before it -- for those who have been starving for too long.

In the U.S., where 24 of the 30 NHL franchises live in a constant state of peril, there are tickets to be sold, sponsorships to be found, a game to be re-sold to audiences that weren't that intrigued with it in the first place.

"I think everybody lost," understated Mario Lemieux, who represents both sides as the only player/part-owner in the NHL. "I think we have a lot to do to bring fans back to the game."

That is the challenge here and this is where owners themselves, winners in the collective bargaining fight, may end up victims themselves.

Just how much equity has been lost in their franchises -- and how many fans -- won't return now is a matter open to speculation.

It took a mainstream sport such as baseball four years and several steroid shots to come back after the strike of 1994. By comparison, hockey is a poor relative.

"This whole thing has been an embarrassment," said Don Meehan, the powerful player agent. "In my view, what hockey needs now is a sincere, fundamental change.

"It's time for the name calling to stop. It's time to understand the fight is over. It's time to start working together."

It's time to start: For better, because it can't possibly be worse.


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