The most asinine work stoppage in sports history continues with no end, or negotiations, in sight.
Yet Buffalo Sabres fans have one reason to rejoice -- it's the week after Thanksgiving, and their favorite team hasn't blundered itself into a hole so deep it can't possibly escape by playoff time.
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That's because the National Hockey League standings haven't changed by a single numeral since the season was supposed to open on Oct. 15, and quite possibly won't until next year, at least. Saturday marked the 300th scheduled game scrubbed by the lockout and, of special importance to local devotees, the seventh straight Non-Hockey Night in Canada.
The big question -- will anyone care when the puck finally drops again?
The hardcore fans seek hockey fixes in Rochester with the Americans of the AHL, who played one game at the otherwise puck-free HSBC Arena, as well as at Niagara University's Dwyer Arena.
College hockey is an increasingly attractive option. One Sabres season-ticket holder e-mailed after taking in his first NU contest, declaring it superior in terms of enthusiasm and fire to the AHL.
But to the less-avid fan, the type needed to qualify any sport as "major league," hockey means the NHL. Which means most of the mainstream audience is quickly forgetting that the sport exists.
Not that it seems to bother the combatants.
The owners claim poverty, but refuse to open their books to prove it. The players operate under the misguided notion that they deserve to be paid like their peers in football, baseball and basketball.
And both sides cling to the quaint idea that the people who make them all quite wealthy still care.
That's what sets the lockout of 2004 apart from its sporting predecessors.
When baseball players went on strike in 1981, '85 and '94, like their football-playing brethren in '82 and '87, they did so knowing that they were squeezing management where it hurt most -- in the wallet.
Both sports were at their apex of popularity when the games stopped, triggering all manner of hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing and anguished wailing from fans.
In most cases, even those who vowed never to buy another ticket forgot that promise shortly after the box offices reopened. The third baseball strike, which wiped out the '94 World Series, had the longest-lasting impact on attendance. Ten years later, though, the sport reached new heights of popularity through the postseason, or at least regained some of the old heights.
National Basketball Association owners locked out their players before the 1998 season, when Michael Jordan still reigned supreme and cash registers played a happy tune.
Even the last hockey lockout, which wiped out nearly half the 1994-95 season, came after one of the highest-profile Stanley Cup Finals in recent decades, when the New York Rangers ended their 54-year championship drought.
Those stoppages were all, to varying degrees, about splitting up the riches and which side of the labor-management divide would become more obscenely wealthy.
This fight, though, is over which side takes the hit in an industry with revenues that are stagnant at best and perpetually growing costs.
Even accepting that the owners are wildly exaggerating their losses, as owners always do, there's no denying that the sport simply doesn't generate anywhere near the same kind of cash, particularly from television, as the other major team sports.
Still, the players cling to a simplistic mantra: no salary cap. Until the players' union concedes to at least discussing that central issue, there won't be any negotiations, or any hockey.
On the surface, you can sympathize with the players' position. Who wants a ceiling put on his or her earnings, particularly in a profession with an average working lifespan of four years?
But when you look at the history of salary caps in sports, you wonder what they're thinking.
The cap, along with true revenue sharing, has made the National Football League the Cadillac of leagues, with ever-growing television ratings and sold-out stadiums across the country. Rights to NFL games are among the most prized possessions in the television industry, and the constantly escalating fees that result drive players' salaries and owners' profits ever skyward.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird started the NBA's turnaround when they entered the league in 1979, but the salary cap installed five years later ushered in the most successful era in the league's history. Of course, Jordan's arrival didn't hurt, either.
Yet the NHLPA refuses even to consider the possibility -- at least publicly. Eventually, the union's leadership will have no choice, particularly with a steady trickle of players saying they'd be willing to play with a cap, and others suggesting they'll play with replacement players if owners decide to go that route in 2005 if this season is lost.
Though the idea of replacement players -- better known as scabs -- isn't very enticing ethically or aesthetically, the members of the NHLPA haven't exactly cloaked themselves in union brotherhood, either. Dozens crossed the Atlantic to play in Europe, taking relatively low-paying jobs away from players over there.
With no games and no negotiations, each side sits on its collective thumb. NHL.com is attempting to maintain some level of fan enthusiasm by staging a 32-team tournament using a computer simulation game called Quest for the Best.
No relief for Buffalo fans there -- not even the 1974-75 or 1998-99 Sabres squads that reached the Stanley Cup Finals made the cut, although several non-Cup winners were included. Toronto, meanwhile, placed four teams (1931-32, 1947-48, 1950-51 and 1962-63) in the tournament, topped only by Montreal's six.
And let's face it -- offering up a hypothetical tournament while the real thing remains absent due to the foolishness of both sides is more of a teasing reminder than anything else.
Logically, you would think the players would cave first. Given the short average career mentioned above and the typical NHL salary of $1.8 million, most will never recoup the money they'll lose by sitting out a whole season, even if the owners don't achieve their goal of lowering that figure by half a million.
If reason were involved, though, this never would have happened in the first place. Instead, you have a league run by Gary Bettman, whose main accomplishment as commissioner has been directing the owners into two lockouts that have served only to further marginalize an already highly marginal sport, as well as bringing hockey to any number of markets that could not care less about getting it.
And a players' union run by agents concerned with their own bottom line, instead of the people they supposedly represent and the game that feeds them both.
All that's left to do is look at that bright side. At least the Sabres aren't in last place.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Nov. 30 2004|