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Monday, April 18, 2005
Updated: May 24, 9:36 AM ET
NBA has its difficulties as well

By John Buccigross
Special to ESPN.com

Idle thoughts from an idle hockey guy as the hockey world idles in the breakdown lane. ...

• I used to believe that thinking and aching about one's personal past was the only way to pay homage to it: That the only proper way we legitimized and respected past events was to ponder them, relive them, and salute them in our minds with prolonged and vivid clarity. Otherwise, I thought, what was the use of fretting over and caring about present and future actions and events, if they were only going to be so easily dismissed and forgotten? However, in time, I learned that overdoing reminiscing and resisting change is, as Bono writes, "running to stand still." It chokes you and that which surrounds you. One can respect the values of the game while attempting to innovate.

• I am praying, praying, praying, praying, praying, and praying for an NBA work stoppage. I long for the polls saying nobody cares about the work stoppage, that the fans are apathetic and think the owners are greedy and the players are selfish. Of course they will leave out the declining NBA ratings, and the fact there is a scoring problem in the NBA, and they will never say the NBA overexpanded, or that there are too many foreigners with names people can't pronounce. Let's see if they bash the NBA like they are bashing the NHL.

• The Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee will be getting together June 8 to discuss the 2005 Hall of Fame class. As you look at the list of candidates, ask yourself this simple question: Would any GM trade Cam Neely in his prime for any of the other candidates in their primes? The answer is "NO." Please write your local congressman and voice your Hall of Fame support of Cam Neely.

• Speaking of "Cams" … Cammi Granato will wrap up her USA Hockey playing career in the upcoming 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy. Hopefully, the Hall of Fame selection committee will have the foresight to see how much she exemplifies the 21st century woman athlete and strongly consider and induct her into the Hall of Fame in 2006. Cammi is, and will be in the future, the symbol of women's hockey in the USA. She was the face of the female game as girls took and are taking the game up in increasing numbers. Intensely competitive, endlessly kind and tirelessly dedicated, Granato's induction would be a seminal moment for girls all over the U.S. and the world. They would look at the TV and say, "Someday, that will be me." It will inspire and motivate countless girls to see Cammi standing shoulder to shoulder with NHL men. These are the kinds of images the leaders of hockey need to visualize. Creativity and imagination are in short supply in the hockey pool these days. This is maddening to me because there is so much material to work with. I could go on for days.

• If there were an NHL season this year the conference finals would be going on right now. The Thrashers, led by Calder and MVP candidate, Kari Lehtonen, would be playing the defending Stanley Cup Champion Lightning in the East Final. The West would be pitting San Jose and Vancouver.

• Another casualty to this season is the NHL Award Show hosted by Ron MacLean. Ron is a hockey treasure, up there with Mike Emrick, Chris Cuthbert and one or two others on my hockey Mt. Rushmore of voices. They are men who make the game better with their voices and soul. If there was a season and was going to be an award show in June, these would have been the winners: Hart Trophy, Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay; Vezina and Calder Trophies, Kari Lehtonen, Atlanta Thrashers; Norris Trophy, Scott Neidermayer, New Jersey Devils; Jack Adams Award, Bob Hartley, Atlanta Thrashers; Rocket Richard Trophy, Rick Nash, Columbus Blue Jackets; Conn Smythe, Nikolai Khabibulin, Tampa Bay Lightning; Stanley Cup Champions, Tampa Bay Lightning.

• Of all the gifts Sidney Crosby appears to be bringing to the NHL, the ones that illuminate grandest to me are his insatiable love of the game and his purity of spirit. He appears almost saint-like, like an angel. The NHL needs his innocence, his spirit, his purity. I hope he isn't polluted by greedy and shortsighted handlers. I hope he isn't used by Bob Goodenow or his agents or whomever as a tool or pawn in this CBA staredown. Crosby will be great. He is the chosen one to bring light to the dark ages of the NHL. The game will be brighter, lighter and swifter this century and Sidney Crosby will be the torch carrier. Tiger Woods' career timing was perfect because his entrance to the PGA Tour coincided with the biggest leap in golf equipment technology and golf course maintenance. Sidney Crosby will begin his NHL career with the best hockey equipment ever devised, and with new rules to allow him to fly high. I'm done with depression. I am bursting with anticipation, hope and enthusiasm for the arrival of Crosby and the revitalization of the game on and off the ice. The NHL and its players need to seize on this small window of hope. They need to come together now and begin the process of healing and selling. Can't they feel what I feel? Are the two sides that greedy and that devoid of creativity that they would kill the spirit of Crosby that is simmering underneath the surface of this depressing spring?

Please don't answer that last question. For me. Thanks.

Life of Podes
The latest on the life and times of Shjon Podein, esq.

"I don't know if it's the sushi or the saki but this country [Japan] is growing on me. Just enjoying some business and pleasure in the home of the Rising Sun. As you may remember I gave a brief attempt at purchasing a Japanese ice hockey team a few months ago. It never came to fruition but now I am talking with the new owner about possibly joining the team on the player/coach level. Not sure which way it will go, but like a good episode of Dallas, stay tuned. Seriously though, Japanese people are quite possibly the friendliest people I have ever met. Sweden was great again this year, had a lot of fun on the ice with friends and family. Talking about going back in a sport trainer/GM role but nothing concrete as of today.

"The dog walking business is going strong. Little Buddy's Dog Care is slowly getting off the ground, so if you have any friends in the uptown Minneapolis area who need assistance with their pooch, you know who to call. Anna is rocking right now and we have signed an agreement that she will never date. It always makes me laugh when I read columns that the lockout will kill hockey and how can the sport ever recover. Of course it hurts the game, but the true fan knows that the game of hockey is much bigger than the Bettmans, the Goodenows, the owners and the players. The true fan still loves the game today and is frustrated but excited for the chance to see the best players in the world play in the hometown rinks again. But who really listens to an old rink rat from the beautiful land of northwest Rochester? Hope life is great and as Badger Bob said, 'It`s a great day for hockey.'

"Oh yeah, my buddy Hiroki Wakabayashi says, 'Kanpai.'"

As expected the response was heavy from last week's column on Gary Bettman. Here's what you thought:

Dear John:
Let's just say I became a fan of hockey on Bettman's watch and I live in Mississippi. I am the type of fan Bettman targeted in his expansion idea. You are exactly right when you said that expansion would take time. Bettman really does seem to have the game's future in his consideration while NHLPA seems to only have individual player consideration in their mind.

Thanks,
Eric Cooksey


Bettman needs to go. So does Goodenow. But two really tough things also need to happen that only a true steward is going to get accomplished. Some teams have to close.

After all, if you look at the revenues and the per team caps together with the gap between owners and players' proposals – the difference in the numbers is made up for if you close the bottom three teams in terms of revenue. The second thing is that the players have to accept responsibility for the quality of the game as well.

Gary may not cause everything, but he certainly hasn't cured much. I won't blame everything on him, but let's not be so ridiculous to say he's the best steward the game could have.

Geoff Crawford


Bottom line: When a team is not successful in its sport or lacks cohesion it is the coach that is fired. The same thing holds true in business. When a company is failing, invariably it is the senior management team, starting with the CEO, that is changed. Stop making excuses for Bettman. He has caused a great sport to go into the doldrums under his stewardship. The buck stops at his doorstep. Time for him to go!

Sincerely,
Michael A. Saunders


Hockey may have its problems and some may be Gary's fault but, thanks to overexpanding, my son knows has privilege of watching Martin St. Louis relieve a defender of the puck, skate in alone and roof one.

Hats off to Gary!

Josh Johns


With Bettman, we have expensive tickets, defense-first boring hockey, salaries that are out of this world, many teams losing money and 30 teams – some of which are in places where the NHL is begging the people to watch (instead of in Winnipeg, Quebec and Hartford). This isn't progress. Progress would have been expanding slowly to markets that really wanted hockey not to the markets that big business like Disney, Blockbuster et al., wanted to put them in. Hockey became like the internet bubble – expanding too fast and crashing just as fast. Like a blue chip stock, hockey should have grown at a pace that could be maintained while ensuring that the product remained at least, if not more, as valuable (i.e. exciting) to the consumer.

Dan Tymko
Winnipeg, Manitoba


Bottom line? Bettman is paid to drive the bus and it crashed. You can't possibly put a dollar amount on what this little fiasco has cost everyone involved with the game, not to mention damage to the game itself at all levels from initiation league on up (as I write this the NHL is listed between women's basketball and soccer on the ESPN web site). In your fifth paragraph below "things take time" you talk about desperation with regard to marketing ploys and TV. This should have all been on his to-do list when he took the job and should have already been taken care of. If he could not he should have passed on the job. Sounds like "procrastination" instead. Remember, this is a LOCKOUT not a strike. If his leadership and marketing skills were so great why would it take the league almost 10 years before really discussing the implementation of said changes?

Bruce Hammond
Big Rapids, Mich.


The reality is that people want results now, and as a result, Bettman has been placed into a position where he can't win. No matter what he does – rule changes, furthering the strike in favor of owner solidarity, etc., Bettman will always be under fire. That being said, my hope is that Bettman is able to sidestep most of the criticism, and continues his tenure for some time to come, as I believe he has a vision for where he wants this game of ours to go. It's just going to take some time to get there.

Jonathan Leleu
Las Vegas, Nev.


Regardless of the views on expansion, Mr. Bettman brought the game to parts of the United States (Atlanta, Anaheim, Dallas, Nashville, etc.) that will allow the game to grow. The younger teams (i.e., Atlanta and Nashville) are bringing new young stars into the game and it is truly a shame that this pause in the action will hurt the progress those teams have made in bringing new fans into the game.

Mark A. Hedrick
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma


You got it right on Bettman. I am sick and tired of the so-called purist defenders of the faith trash talkin' the man! He has almost single-handedly made hockey a national sport. It thrives at all levels across the country from Texas to Arizona, California, the South and West because of Gary.

Drew


I'm not blaming Bettman for everything but the NHL is falling apart on his watch.

Steve Baldassari
Parsippany N.J.


Sure, in theory there should be enough quality players with Euros and North Americas, but not for nine or so new franchises in just over a decade! That type of expansion is foolhardy, and the only precedent for it (that type of rapid expansion for a niche sport) is the old NASL (the soccer league with the Cosmos – Pele, yeah, that league), which went wild with expansion, and quickly vanished from the landscape. And these new franchises lack character. I really don't care if my Rangers are facing the Panthers.

Alexander Xenopoulos


The commish has a deal of responsibility for the current situation. First he signed off on the labor agreement that led to this mess, second he sat on his hands as the situation developed – most other sports seem to be able to evolve rather than allow this type of situation to develop and punish the fans – and he didn't rein in the owners when paying stupid prices for players in a "win-at-all-costs mind-set" and thirdly, even accepting what you say about his business acumen, marketing can't work if you don't have a product. It will take years for the NHL to recover.

In Australia we are starved of hockey coverage. The NHL seems to be the only brand we get. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to see the current World Championships!

Brad
Melbourne, Australia


Look at the major air carriers. All of them who employ the old business model are in serious trouble. The likes of Southwest thrive because they have a different, perhaps visionary plan combined with a different operating strategy. Let's hope that Bettman has finally convinced the old school owners that a new, long-term strategy for the game must be implemented now.

As the best spectator sport, some creativity in marketing the game, making it more appealing (TV, offensive mind-set, etc.) to all fans, will go a long way. While it may take some time, if Bettman is successful, and a grand plan is implemented, hockey will thrive for years to come.

Paul
Plainfield, Ill.


Sorry bro, but Gary Bettman did ruin hockey, and it was expansion that did it. Your argument for Mr. Bettman's aggressive expansion of the NHL under his tenure "that things take time" is the very reason that so much expansion should not have occurred so quickly in the first place. It takes time to build fan bases, especially for hockey and especially in markets that are unfamiliar with the sport. Too many teams popped up too quickly and the cohesion of the league fell apart.

Morgan Doninger


Mr. Bettman did not lead his followers (owners) to any type of financial restraint until it was SEASON CANCELED. His fault maybe not, his responsibility, absolutely!

Kurt Kronfuss


The NHL is in places like Tampa, Phoenix, Carolina and Atlanta for the wrong reasons. Not because the fans care about the game there, but because a bunch of shortsighted owners have been chasing the dream of a network television contract, WHICH IS NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN, like some sort of Holy Grail.

Gary Bettman was central to that kind of thinking. The network TV thing was right out of the NBA handbook. It was based on that model. And the owners followed him down that road like a bunch of zombies, periodically pocketing their share of the expansion fees to paper over the cracks in their balance sheets.

You're right to talk about owners and GMs who lack the vision and backbone the fix the game. But that's what owners do – they protect their selfish interests. And when that happens, the game needs a strong commissioner – to twist those arms and get parochial minds to think of the greater good.

That's what leaders do, be it in politics or sport. Gary Bettman has failed us on that count.

In the early '90s, hockey needed a visionary. They gave us a lawyer in a pair of Converses.

Richard Gizbert
London, England (via Ottawa)


As one of the few people that defend Bettman in this world, I'm extremely happy that someone finally wrote an article to set the record straight. Bettman has done wonders for this league in terms of growth that most people cannot even comprehend and those that do fail to acknowledge it because have decided Bettman is solely responsible for escalating salaries and the neutral zone trap.

When Bettman finally accomplishes his goal in these labor negotiations, he will set the league up to be in the best shape it has ever been in. Unfortunately, the people that fail to acknowledge his accomplishments today will accuse him of ruining the league before fixing it as if it were some grand scheme. Like you, I'm very excited about the future of the sport. So many people act as if the league could fold tomorrow but all the evidence suggests that once the league is in a strong financial situation, we will see a league that truly deserves to be mentioned as one of the "Big 4."

Chris
St. Peters, Mo.


I grew up in Philly during the '70s and watched the Flyers go from a joke of an expansion team to a powerhouse that filled the Spectrum routinely. I have now been in North Carolina for 15 years and am excited by the potential of the Hurricanes and the Sunbelt expansion.

John McMillen


You make an interesting case in defense of Gary Bettman, but I still strongly disagree. Any of the new marketing ideas Bettman may implement will barely recoup the damage done by the loss of an entire season. You said yourself that the state of the NHL, quite frankly, "could not be worse." Whose is ultimately responsible for the state of NHL hockey if not Gary Bettman?

Sincerely,
Jay Deuby



John Buccigross' e-mail address  for questions, comments or cross-checks  is john.buccigross@espn.com.