- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2004

This is Day 66 of the lockout that is erasing the 2004-05 NHL season, 38 days into a schedule that isn’t being played. For those counting and taking the league’s rolling 45-day advance cancellation policy into consideration, 534 games, or 44 percent of the entire nonseason, are already off the books.

In a few more weeks, there won’t be any point in counting. The season will have succumbed because pride and common sense stood in the way of logical negotiations to end a lockout that didn’t have to be — unless that was the intention from the start.

There are only a few things that are absolutes in this scenario, known truths in this exercise in arrogance and belligerence, things that are beyond dispute.

First, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has imposed a gag order on his employers, the 30 team owners, and their employees in the front offices and coaching ranks that is truly a masterpiece. It has been violated twice, and both times stiff fines were reportedly handed down. Otherwise, the management side of this labor dispute is as expressionless as the Sphinx and just as talkative.

What the gag order has done, however, is choke off any behind-the-scenes discussions that might bring this mindless work stoppage closer to an end.

Secondly, Bob Goodenow, the executive director of the NHL Players Association, is proving to be the master of the moment. Twice this month, Goodenow has faced possible anarchy — once with a small group of players and this week with some player agents — and twice he has come through stronger than before.

Thirdly, there has been more than enough time for the two sides to get this settled. Bettman sought to reopen talks at least three years ago but was met by silence from the union. Now it is the league that is refusing to negotiate unless its demands are agreed to up front.

On all accounts, this does not bode well for what’s left of the season or for the immediate future of the league as it is now known. Two immovable, well-financed and very stubborn forces have collided and it is distinctly possible one or both will not survive.

What now appears certain is that the season will be canceled, the drop-dead date coming in the first two weeks of December. It would appear this is the course of action the hardliners on the ruling board of governors have sought from the start, cancellation of the season being the second-best goal possible. The primary objective was to have the players’ union surrender during a nationally televised special from Madison Square Garden.

Originally this dispute was viewed as lasting a year, maybe a little longer, tops. But cancellation of the season could mean the NHL becomes a long-running series on “Court TV,” the scene jumping from various U.S. federal courts to any of the top courts in the four Canadian provinces where the league conducts business.

Cancellation will lead to an extension of the noncommunication policy, which will prompt the league to declare an impasse, which will prompt the union to declare management has not bargained in good faith, therefore nullifying the attempt at the impasse declaration, etc., etc., etc.

The NHL will try to force players back to work if the courts agree with the impasse, forcing the union to go on strike, forcing the league to employ replacement players which will lead to years of hard feelings among the rank and file, if any report for work. Without any doubt, this will lead the union to try to form a rival league and in very short order, the NHL will have achieved its goal.

It is hard to believe now that the NHL has ever had any other goal than to completely break the union, leaving the 30 owners as overlords governing serfs, paying any stipend the masters think they can get away with, just like the old days. The days when owners were blamed for spending foolishly will be not-so-fond remembrances from the past, discussed when management sits down to recall the NHL in the days before the salary cap, before the union was beaten into the ground.

The NHL that fans knew just last season, bad as it could be at times and infuriatingly inconsistent in most regards, will be fondly referred to as the good old days before greedy, stubborn and selfish individuals on both sides changed the face of a sport forever, and not for the better.

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