The NHL expanded its problems through expansion

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

It wasn't as if the NHL was having such a great season to begin with.

So there's that consolation if league boss Gary Bettman pulls the plug on this one, expected to happen Wednesday barring any last-minute settlement.

Think about it: If the commissioner hadn't come up with that nifty lockout maneuver when he did, and the season went ahead as usual, chances are the three biggest stories at this juncture would have all been public-relations disasters. They would have played out in courtrooms and offices instead of ice rinks, and dragged the attention of most casual fans along with them.

Those stories, in rough chronological order, would have been: Former St. Louis goon Mike Danton being sentenced last November to 7 1/2 years in prison for trying to have his agent killed; Vancouver thug Todd Bertuzzi petitioning Bettman last month for reinstatement after he viciously blindsided Colorado forward Steve Moore; and Atlanta's Dany Heatley being sentenced last week to three years' probation after pleading guilty to second-degree vehicular homicide in the death of teammate Dan Snyder.

That's the problem with the NHL. Pro hockey can be exhilarating, but hasn't been for a while, and the only time it makes the front of the sports pages anymore is when someone or something goes terribly awry.

Now some people will argue that even bad press is better than being ignored, which is essentially where the pro game finds itself at the moment. But there's no convincing Bettman of that, probably because nearly all the press during his 12-year reign has been bad.

Bettman took the job pledging to put hockey on equal footing with the other major team sports, and he widened the NHL's footprint from 21 franchises to 30, made inroads into nontraditional hockey meccas like Arizona, Florida, Tennessee and Texas, grew revenues from $400 million to almost $2 billion, and brought big-time U.S. broadcasters into the league's TV fold.

But running with the big boys carries a steep price tag and all that expansion accomplished was to put more teams in a deeper financial hole. A league-sponsored report last February put losses from the previous season at $273 million, and there are only two ways to get rid of a deficit like that; one is to bring in more money, the other is to cut costs.

Unfortunately, Bettman failed to get "cost certainty" the first time he locked the players out and lost nearly half the 1994-95 season. This time around, he's willing to call off the whole deal and risk driving away even more fans to get his way.

Any idea that stupid is rarely the work of one man, and that's certainly the case here. Players are taking home three-quarters of what the teams are taking in -- the average salary has grown to $1.8 million last season from $558,000 in Bettman's first season. And while their union has shown some willingness to compromise in the few bargaining sessions that have taken place, they're drawing the line at a salary cap.

The NFL and NBA have them in place, baseball still does not. Bettman and his owners have gone on record guaranteeing the players an annual income of $1.3 million under their latest proposal -- cap included. But as NBA star Latrell Sprewell said so plaintively earlier this season, players have families to feed, too. That's their rationale for letting this season slip away, and like Bettman, they're foolishly sticking to it.

Some of the resulting developments would be funny if they weren't so painful.

A nine-man group called the Atlanta Spirit bought the NHL Thrashers, the NBA Hawks and Philips Arena operating rights last year, and part of its payback was supposed to come Sunday, with a chance to host hockey's All-Star game. Instead, with the arena dark, a member of the ownership group said he might go sit in the stands "and pretend like I'm watching a game."

"It's been a disappointment," Michael Gearon Jr., told his hometown newspaper, "we haven't seen a hockey game, really, since we became owners."

Neither, for that matter, has anyone else. By this point in previous negotiations between billionaires and millionaires, fans would have chosen sides, with the resulting public pressure forcing one or the other -- or both -- to make meaningful concessions. Instead, both sides have interpreted the fans' silence as an endorsement of their position.

Wait until they find out the real reasons things have been so quiet. The product is dull and expensive, it's vanishing in Canada, where fans still care deeply, and springing up in Sun Belt locales, where there are plenty of alternatives and fans could care less. Instead of admitting the mistakes of the past decade of expansion, Bettman is determined to get a collective bargaining agreement that justifies them. And the players are just as determined to call his bluff.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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