Commentary

NHL, NHLPA throwing it all away

Updated: September 17, 2012, 6:17 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

And so, let us pause now to ponder the colossal stupidity of the lockout and all that it entails.

If you're connected to the game, if you're a fan, a journalist, a PR staffer, a player, a GM or an owner, there is a certain conceit connected to being a puckhead, a certain sense of propriety about The Game.

Whether it's part of your DNA, as is the case with so many Canadians, or you have just fallen in love with the game through other levels of exposure, there is, for the most part, a connection that is palpable, unique.

It's this kind of connection that allows players and owners to take fans for granted and regularly close down the game for their own good.

You'd think we'd be used to it by now.

Still, we pause to ponder the great opportunity lost, the great opportunity to prove that such sentiments were actually true and/or worthwhile.

The National Hockey League and its players had a golden opportunity to cement their place as the cool kids on the sporting block, to prove that the game was indeed separate and unique, that the game was worthy of such sentiment.

They were a long way down that track when presented with this opportunity.

An award-winning HBO reality series, the Winter Classic, Stanley Cups in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles. Stars galore. Record revenues.

And then, even better, a chance this summer to prove that hockey was indeed unique by actually getting their act together on the labor front.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

For the second time in eight years, the sport that loves to claim its fans are the best in the world closes its doors to those fans, with guesses ranging from weeks to months to an entire season as to when it might return.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Would that the players had agreed to get at this process last season when the NHL wanted to. But new players' association executive director Donald Fehr was getting to know his players and the landscape. Then it was too late, the union said, for the players to take part in negotiations late last season, and so on and so on.

Would that the players were not so hung up on their history as victims. Yes, they took it on the chin seven years ago with a 24 percent rollback on salaries and a salary cap they said they'd never play under. Get over it. Their constant reminders of what they gave up last time rings hollow, given that only one-third of the players currently in the league were around then. It might have been unpleasant, but that history is moot when it comes to finding a way to get this settled.

Would that the players weren't so hung up on the moral high ground of hanging on to the 57 percent of revenues that most observers and certainly the owners would conclude is out of whack, given the cost of running the league (or any other league, for that matter). We get the players' painful history (see above), but the 57 percent of revenues that saw players make far more than anyone imagined seven years ago isn't etched in stone, and is there anyone in the world who actually thinks the players are going to be able to hold on to anything more than 50 percent, maybe 52 percent, of revenues when all the dust clears?

Would that the owners weren't so two-faced, signing player after player to contracts they want to abolish under a new CBA. Think of the gall of a guy like Boston owner Jeremy Jacobs, head of the NHL's board of governors, signing Tyler Seguin to a six-year deal in the days before the end of the current CBA while sitting at the table demanding that contracts be capped at five years.

Would that there were more thoughtful, creative leadership from within the ownership group. This marks the third lockout under commissioner Gary Bettman. When locking the players out at the risk of permanently impairing the game -- especially a game that has so much going for it -- becomes your default position, that's not leadership, that's arrogance. Surely, in spite of a unanimous show of support for Bettman's strategy, not all 30 owners or ownership groups believe in this scorched-earth strategy. Where are the dissenters' voices in this? Where is the voice of the forward-thinking from within the ownership ranks?

Would that the owners had been more willing to take smaller bites in resetting the financial structure of the game instead of forcing the players into a corner by first demanding they drop from 57 percent of revenues to 43 percent, then moving up only slightly and trumpeting those moves as "significant." If this was a strategy that was designed to start the two sides on a path to the middle ground, it was ill-devised, especially understanding how the players would react given the last go-around. If it was a strategy designed only to lead us to this point, well, that's just sad.

Would that we had seen something that suggested the two sides weren't simply prepared to pass through the ending of the current CBA and into lockout mode without breaking a sweat. If the negotiations to this point were a player, they'd be Alex Semin. Lots of promise but ultimately, well, disappointing.

Would that the two sides engaged in sessions that lasted seemingly as long as their post-bargaining news conferences. Yes, the two sides are deeply entrenched in their own positions, but why not make more than a few token phone calls or a few texts as the lockout began? Why weren't the two sides brainstorming ways to find some way to bridge the divide that exists? Or was it merely more convenient to let the clock run out and wait for some more meaningful (read economically painful) time to really get down to work? Mostly, though, would that both sides had been more in tune with the values of the game that make it so appealing. Would that they had wanted it just a little bit more, that they had been willing to pay the price for success, that they had worked together to become something greater than the sum of their parts.

Could it be that both sides have lost sight of those core principles that make the game so strong and enduring, at least for the fans who suffer through these ghastly dramas every few years?

It would seem so.

And so, instead of seizing the opportunity to carve out an even more distinctive part of the sporting landscape in North America by getting a deal done, the two sides gave us nothing.

And the greatest shame?

It's exactly what many expected.

What a waste.