- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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I don't want to hear the blow-by-blow about who's right, who's greedy, who's behaving more egregiously as another season melts away. I feel a rant coming on. I love NHL hockey, but I'm bone-tired of a league that's now in the third owners' lockout of commissioner Gary Bettman's tenure. The last time this happened back when Bettman did/didn't/did cancel the 2004-05 season after some last-gasp grandstanding that we'll get to in a minute, I argued that both sides should be sent to some iceberg in the Bering Strait. Somewhere far, far away where the only noise would be the sound of seals barking and the Arctic winds howling as they tried to work it out.
Eight years later, with the league's most unnecessary lockout of them all now under way, my generous offer still stands. Hell, I'll book it for them if they'll go. Just GO.
Go get your latest new labor agreement done. Spare us the details. Don't pelt us with tedious stunts meant to win fans' hearts and minds, like this saccharine statement the NHL issued when the lockout started Sunday about what we "owe" one another, or the subsequent news that some St. Louis Blues players are now skating on their own with their team jerseys turned inside-out to obscure the logo as if -- boo-hoo -- they're now men without a country. Fellas, scholars are not going to look back fondly on such gestures as epochal moments in labor history and weep uncontrollably.
Enough of the breast-beating histrionics. The rest of us should decide when or if we want to bother with the NHL again. Because right now -- even more than last time -- the prevailing emotion should be disgust.
And it's not just because no NHL hockey fan should be required to know that Metallurg Magnitogorsk is where reigning league MVP Evgeni Malkin is resigned to playing these days rather than fulfilling his contract for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Or that just four days into the lockout, several NHL teams announced collateral damage like immediate 20 percent pay cuts and work furloughs for all their other employees. The Florida Panthers even laid off their mascot. More workers and related businesses and city coffers are going to suffer, too, if hockey isn't played.
There's also this: No amount of obfuscation or blizzard of self-serving talking points can change the fact that just a couple of months ago, the league was beating its chest about record revenues and waving pom-poms about the foothold the sport had regained in sports fans' consciousness. Now Bettman is poor-mouthing the league's ability to keep it up and demanding that players take a double-digit rollback on their 57 percent share of league revenues on top of the 24 percent pay cut and first salary cap they agreed to last time around?
Cast against that, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly's announcement that he and Bettman won't draw their salaries until the lockout is over (same as relatively new NHLPA leader Donald Fehr) should not make anyone's heart swell with admiration. Bettman's salary has leaped from $3.7 million to $7.9 million a year since the last agreement was signed, so it's a safe bet he's got a few bucks saved up. And look: There's no mention of him taking the same permanent salary cut going forward that he's asking the players to take. Once again, this NHL work stoppage was the owners' choice. The players would've reported to camp on time and played under the just-expired collective bargaining agreement while negotiations continued. But Bettman said nope.
A lot of this pathological behavior must look familiar to Fehr, the former baseball union czar who used to hand major league owners their heads on a platter fairly regularly.
Much like baseball owners used to do then, the NHL is saying the current system needs to be drastically overhauled even as owners themselves can't or won't stop throwing record contracts that players are only too happy to grab.
The baldest example of how extra-cynical the NHL owners' latest claw-back attempt is Minnesota owner Craig Leipold, who sits on NHL's negotiating team. He signed not one but two players -- Zach Parise and Ryan Suter -- this offseason to 13-year, $98 million contracts as a splashy statement that he's serious about reviving his small-market franchise. And now he wants to retroactively cap all contracts at five years and slap a hefty discount on contracts like the ones he just gave away? All when he knew full well this showdown was coming and, very likely, the league would be asking for that and abolishing players' rights to salary arbitration and more limits on free agency?
Mr. Leipold, there's a spot in the iceberg penalty box for you and your cold, cold heart. Allow me to make up the call. How about an endgame misconduct plus a double-quadruple major for instigating?
The players aren't blameless, either, of course. If the players keep ignoring some of Bettman's valid complaints -- he's noted that the league's leap from a $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion business has been built at least somewhat on the greater strength of the Canadian dollar since 2004 -- the players should get whistled for truth doctoring, too. But so far, they've been more willing to budge.
There are more examples of why this impasse is so galling. But really, why bother following along again as hope spikes and pancakes?
It's hard to forget how Bettman initially canceled the 2004-05 season, then put out a last-ditch request three days later for Wayne Gretzky, then a part-owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, and Mario Lemieux, then still a player/owner for the Penguins, to fly ASAP to New York in the hopes of bridging the angry divide between players and ownership and brokering an agreement.
Optimism bloomed anew. Both sides looked like they deserved credit. They really, really did. But when both men answered Bettman's drop-everything request to show up in Manhattan -- at the swank $550-a-night St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, which (bad symbolism red alert!!!) offered perks like 24-hour personal butler service -- the two legends found that Bettman and then-union leader Bob Goodenow weren't even in the negotiating room. The antagonism was as high as ever, and the season was called off for good within several hours, without a single new proposal being offered by either side. None!
So this time around, just give us a holler when you're done, boys. Send up a flare. We'll send out the icebreaker to pick you up. Hot chocolate all around.
Until then? Ignore the NHL and NHLPA as they pull their jerseys over each other's heads and thrash around. Eventually they'll get tired of whaling on each other and figure it out.
In the meantime, why not enjoy what promises to be the craziest October baseball in a long time or the arrival of autumn football weekends? If the holidays roll around and there's still no NHL hockey -- yes, the league may even blow up that New Year's Day outdoor game that's expected to draw 110,000 to Michigan Stadium -- you could always get your fix by entertaining yourself with something else. Try a fireside rereading of this hilarious Wall Street Journal send-up of 49 stupid questions intended to drive combustible Rangers coach John Tortorella to total distraction. (No. 21: "Which one is Pujols?" No. 49: "Why did you sign Tebow?" )
Me? I'm done ranting. I don't even find it cathartic anymore when Bettman gets booed every year as he's handing out the Stanley Cup.
I'm entering an NHL lockout cone of silence. And you're welcome to join me there, if you like. So far, it's bliss.