Thursday, September 23, 2004
Lockout has yet to register
By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com
Heading into Week 2 of the National Hockey League lockout, there is a distinctive "if a tree falls in a forest" element to the proceedings ... or lack thereof.
Teams began canceling regular-season games this week, after the league granted permission to release arena dates on a 30-day rolling basis. But in terms of actual effect felt so far, only a week's worth of training camp sessions and a handful of meaningless exhibition games are all that have formally gone by the boards.
Of course meaningless is something owners and players should soon be well-acquainted with as this dispute starts to eat into real games.
Or will it be irrelevance?
A league that was barely on the American radar screen in the first place has all but completely fallen off only a week into the lockout.
Across North America, hockey writers are being reassigned to NFL games, Yankee and Red Sox pennant runs and college football games. Some are being asked to use up vacation time accrued during a long playoff run. Many major newspapers, even those in so-called traditional hockey markets, have allocated only a few lines of wire copy to the lockout and the sport in general. What will the coverage look like in February? March?
Not to overstate the media's importance, but the biggest lifeline between the league and its fans is merely a thread in most markets.
The few hockey stories that will be told will come from American Hockey League rinks, NCAA campuses and the major junior leagues. There are compelling stories to be sure, stories that deserve to be told. That they have little or nothing to do with the NHL makes them somehow more intriguing.
Some NHL teams are planning to have their AHL teams play games in their buildings -- although in the case of the Chicago Blackhawks it won't be difficult for the few fans left to identify the players, given that last year's NHL squad is essentially the same team that will occupy the Norfolk dressing room this season.
In Canada, where any hockey story is a good story, where every story brings at least the hint of something happening, the lockout remains big news.
But even in Canada the stoppage has taken on a feeling of the surreal in a short period of time.
On successive nights the CBC's nightly news magazine "The National" featured live interviews and question-and-answer sessions with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players' Association boss Bob Goodenow. In between, The Toronto Star, the nation's largest newspaper, managed to get the NHL's top negotiator, Bill Daly, and his counterpart from the NHLPA, Ted Saskin, in a boardroom for an 80-minute question-and-answer period.
The questions in both forums remained the same.
The answers, too.
We'll never accept a salary cap, you greedy owners.
We'll never accept anything but a salary cap, you greedy players.
At least Daly offered to give Saskin a ride to the nearby CBC studios for Goodenow's dog-and-pony act.
Polite, if irrelevant.
On the ice, the Original Stars Hockey League, an upstart, four-on-four barn-storming league composed of locked-out players, was rumored to have shut down operations after a handful of exhibition games, which were hammered in the media for small crowds and sloppy play. But an announcement on league letterhead turned out to be a hoax. Instead, commissioner Grant Ledyard said Thursday that Dallas Stars Marty Turco and Brenden Morrow would join the six-team league when it starts its regular schedule on Oct. 7 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Then there's the curious notion of players who will not stand for a salary cap that would still see them paid an average of $1.3 million per season playing for a portion of the gate from a crowd of 3,000 in towns like Barrie and Sarnia.
The first week of the lockout also featured news that Peter Forsberg scored on his third shift in his first game with Modo in the Swedish elite league. He was also assessed a double major penalty for cross-checking and, oh yeah, announced he wouldn't be coming back to the NHL at all this season even if the two sides could bring themselves to get back to the table. Forsberg's symbolic turning of his back on the NHL speaks volumes, and one has to wonder if NHL fans will ever see the flashy Swede again.
On the other side of the irony fence, Carolina Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos told Detroit-area reporters at a junior hockey kickoff that the players better suck it up and take what the owners are offering.
"We're going to tie players' salaries to the revenues of the league. And they can sit and be petulant and pout about it all they want," Karmanos said.
But wasn't it Karmanos who, in 1998, signed Detroit Red Wings restricted free agent Sergei Fedorov to an obscene offer sheet that forced Karmanos' arch-rival owner Mike Ilitch to pay the holdout $28 million for three months' worth of work?
The one and only.
The offer sheet, matched by the Red Wings en route to a second consecutive Stanley Cup, made Fedorov the highest-paid player in the league -- albeit briefly -- and played a significant role in pushing the NHL off the economic cliff.
Is it any wonder that everyone -- from Goodenow to Saskin to Bettman to Daly to Ledyard to the guy sitting, feet up, flicking from the Red Sox to the Denver Broncos to the World Series of Poker -- has settled in for the long haul?
Back in 1994, when the league last closed its doors to a labor dispute, players went through training camp and the league delayed the start of the season for two weeks before negotiations broke off. There had been at least a sense of something being lost, a taste of something in each of the league's markets and then nothing.
The recent World Cup of Hockey, largely ignored in the United States, offered little of that. In most markets the lockout arrived with all the fanfare of a grocery story circular.
So, just what was that noise we heard at midnight last Wednesday?
Apparently it was nothing.
|NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow got ready to speak to a nation-wide audience in Canada -- and said nothing new.|
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.