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Wednesday, October 27, 2004
No good guys in the blame game

By Adam Proteau
The Hockey News

Welcome to the first, possibly annual, Screen Shots Questionnaire Of Those Who Support Gary Bettman and Team Owners In The NHL Lockout.

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The Hockeys New Poll:
Would you watch replacements?
Question 1: What's wrong with you?

Questions 2, 3 and 4: Honestly, have you always been this way? Do you enjoy root canals, that preposterous Lenny Kravitz/Sara Jessica Parker commercial for The Gap, and hourly colonoscopies? Do you openly cheer on Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest?

Sometimes it's hard to believe how quickly we've turned on our NHLers. Poll after poll has shown the grand majority of us are firmly in the camp of the guys we used to consider the bullies of the sports world; instead, apparently, we crave nothing more than to unleash the most painful of wedgies on the young men who've sacrificed their entire youth for a shot at their dreams. Sometimes you're left scratching your head, wondering, "Wasn't it only a few years ago the late Carl Brewer and a group of retired NHLers proved how they were systematically denied their due by the guys who sign the checks? What's changed so much that the guys who once were our Rocky Balboas are now a bunch of no-good Clubber Langs?"

Some other times, though, it's easy to see why the players have become the Tonya Hardings and the owners the Nancy Kerrigans. Part of it is their fault, part of it isn't.

It's the players' fault because they haven't demanded their union fight the NHL's PR juggernaut head-on, leaving the impression that fans matter to them as much as cell phones matter to the Amish. It's their fault more of them didn't decry the onslaught of outrageous ticket prices that all but guaranteed the exclusion of families at their games. It's their fault they don't see the hypocrisy inherent in their decision to take jobs from other pro players by joining minor league and European teams during the lockout. It's their fault that they've failed to understand competitive balance is as crucial to the NHL's future as affordable ticket prices. (That'd be Screen Shots Consulting Inc.'s No. 1 directive to the NHLPA: enough with the touting of major league baseball's salary structure. You can have Red Sox/Yankees thrill-fests coming out the wazoo, but baseball still is broken. End of story.)

But here's what you can't blame NHLers for: The humiliating, utter failure of the league as a TV entity in the United States. The abandonment of an offensive style of play that put hockey's true talents front and center, hence crippling the marketing potential of the league. The decision to keep the game's future in the hands of someone who, by his own admission, has helmed it all the way to near-extinction.

And let's stop kidding ourselves part of the ill will we see directed towards NHLers these days is born of sheer jealousy. Nobody grows up wanting to be an owner (that only happens when we grow up, smarten up, and realize where the true power lies). Rather, we grow up wanting to be players, so it's far more natural to lash out at them if and when their philosophies don't gel with ours.

The decisions owners make rarely wind up in the daily sports section. They stay in the boardroom, safe from the pitchforks and torches that might cascade across the landscape were they readily apparent to you and I. They don't put owners on hockey cards for a reason; the stats on the back would not be beneficial to their cause.

And it can't help the players that once a week, on CBC's "Making The Cut" series, audiences hear young and old players alike say they'd play for nothing -- as if we're supposed to believe anyone other than an NHLer would tear up the ludicrously generous offer sheet from Glen Sather and continue on to sainthood via a hockey career.

C'mon, people. Even a blowhard of Rush Limbaughian proportions would cringe at such pretense. The truth of the matter is, were it one of your friends sitting across from an owner with pen in one hand and shiny new money vault in the other, you'd be overjoyed for him. If you were witness to the sacrifices most players have made over the years, both personal and professional, if you were to fully comprehend the odds they overcame to get to the NHL level, you'd congratulate him as you would had he married Brooke Burke.

We don't know about you, but it's a hell of a lot easier to imagine Georges Laraque as your best pal than it is envisioning a blood brothers ceremony with the likes of Bill Wirtz.

So put up the dartboard with Mike Modano's picture on it, if you must choose sides. Photoshop a seedy-looking, five-o'-clock shadow on to your Joe Thornton screen saver, if it stops you from developing another ulcer. Player-hate like you were a founding member of MC Hammer's posse. But stop fooling yourself with the idea that the scales of blame tip to one side in particular. Stop pretending equally disastrous performances from the league and the players' union aren't what got us where we are today, neck-deep in hair-splitting lawyers and players whose lockout comments were somehow "misquoted."

Ultimately, both sides suckered themselves into this quagmire. And no matter how many popularity polls run from here on in, your disgust should be meted out in equal portions.

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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