Waste of a lockout has hurt U.S. market

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

It's a new calendar year.

And it's a new National Hockey League -- or so its leaders would have us believe.

But halfway through the season that brought hockey back, a close look indicates the changes aren't as widespread as is generally assumed.

As far as the on-the-ice product is concerned, the game is radically changed -- but only over the relatively recent product.

Informal surveys indicate that most of those who dislike the "new" game are young, but not too young.

They are old enough to remember the game of the 1990s, but not old enough to remember the game of the 70s.

They say they're purists.

"This isn't hockey," they snort.

In fact, this is hockey the way it used to be played back when, in the course of play, the stick was used to handle the puck, not an opponent.

The only thing missing from that earlier era is the violence -- the bench-clearing brawls, using the stick as a weapon when play had stopped, and running guys from behind.

In essence, the "new" game allows the stars to exhibit their skills, a fact which has nothing at all to do with the lockout.

The changes that were made prior to this season could have been made 10 years ago. In fact, many hockey observers were pleading for them 10 years ago.

But commissioner Gary Bettman, the lawyer who came from basketball's boardroom, knew better than people who had watched hockey all their lives, and took more than a decade to get around to doing what needed to be done.

Now let's turn to the game off the ice -- the financial side, for which the owners shut down the league for a year.

Because of waivers and injuries, there still may be some fluctuations in the payrolls of NHL teams.

But those fluctuations will be minimal and, at the halfway point, it's fairly clear the average salary for the 2005-06 season is going to be closing in on $1.6 million US.

Those of you who weren't bored catatonic by the barrage of figures that came out during the Dark Year will remember that the comparable figure at the time the owners instituted their lockout was roughly $1.85 million.

Wow!

A shutdown of a $2-billion business for a year to save $250,000 per player.

What a great deal.

It gets worse. Back in December 2004, the players proposed a settlement that would have imposed an average salary of $1.3 million.

In that same proposal, the triggers that had caused most of the NHL's salary inflation were eliminated. The players agreed to accept entry-level rollbacks (to $850,000 with a maximum bonus of $850,000), luxury taxes, reverse arbitration and even shrunken qualifying offers.

The average team payroll would have been $31 million.

At the recent NHL governors meeting in Phoenix, Bettman speculated the salary cap will rise by at least 8% next year. It will be somewhere in the neighbourhood of $45 million.

That means that next year, the average salary will be approximately $1.7 million.

In other words, Bettman and his friends shut down an entire league for a year and inflicted untold damage to its future so they could spend roughly an average of $9.2 million more per team that would have been the case had they taken the players' offer.

Now the game is back in its more exciting form, and in Canada, where fans always were going to give it a second chance, it's more popular than ever.

But in the United States, where Bettman killed the market, the fans are not coming back.

They found something else to do last year -- the Dark Year that didn't need to happen had Bettman simply instituted the on-ice changes when hockey people were urging him to do so.


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