- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

Sorry, there’ll be no tears in This Space about the possible loss of the 2004-05 NHL season. Hockey needs this lockout, needs some time to do some deep thinking about its future — unless it wants to see Bad turn into Worse.

And no temporary fixes either, gentlemen. In ‘94-95, the last time the Collective Bargaining Agreement was allowed to lapse — at a cost of 34 games — the owners settled for a deal that didn’t even begin to address their problems (which is why they’re in the straits they’re in).

It didn’t include a salary cap, which the NFL and NBA already had, but it did include salary arbitration, the bane of baseball’s existence. Had the Lords of Hockey gotten their house in order then, they wouldn’t be facing the current crisis … and the prospect of no NHL at all this season.

So, lock the players out, I say. Lock ‘em out, and keep ‘em locked out until the two sides Get It Right. I don’t care how long it takes — six months, a year, two years, whatever. Hockey is sick and it needs to get well, unless it wants to be overtaken by professional poker and the X Games. This lockout is a positive development, a chance for the owners and players to face reality, to be reminded of their true place in the sports pecking order. They’re not the NFL, they’re not the NBA, they’re not major league baseball, they’re not even professional golf in terms of TV ratings. It’s high time they started thinking about The Game and how to straighten it out.

Of course, I live in Washington, home of the rebuilding Capitals. If there weren’t any hockey his season, it would almost be a blessing. But in other NHL outposts, like Detroit and Philadelphia and anywhere in the Great White North, the league shutting down is like the electricity going out, the water being turned off. It’s that basic to human existence.

But the NHL just can’t keep going like this. I know it, you know it, the owners know it and, in their heart of hearts, I’ve got to believe the players know it, too. The economics of the sport are a mess (and the low-scoring games aren’t much better). The league claims to be spending 69 percent of what it takes in on salaries, and that’s ridiculous without a big TV contract and other major sources of revenue. Even if the owners are cooking the books a bit, it’s clear that some of them — the Caps’ Ted Leonsis, for instance — have taken huge financial hits in recent years.

And before you dip into the Michael Jordan Quote Book — “If you can’t afford it, then sell the team” — let me just point out that people aren’t exactly lining up to buy these clubs. The NHL, at this juncture, isn’t exactly seen as a great investment. A great write-off, maybe, but not a place where you’re going to increase your net worth appreciably.

If the owners and players really want to prosper, they have to start thinking of themselves as partners, have to set aside their suspicions and age-old grudges and begin to work together — for the good of hockey. You don’t need an MBA from the Wharton School to realize the NHL’s business model stinks. No league that sustains itself largely on gate receipts can support the kind of payrolls hockey supports. Ten million dollars a year for Jaromir Jagr? You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me.

Hockey is so backward, so 19th century, it doesn’t even have a drug testing plan in place. And the players won’t push for rules changes that would make it a more open game, a more crowd-pleasing game — and, theoretically, a more profitable game — because the changes would also make it a more European game. The NHL is still very Canada-centric.

Imagine what the NFL would be like if it hadn’t moved the goal posts back or fiddled with the pass-blocking or pass-coverage rules. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. I can just reel off some early ‘70s Super Bowl scores for you:

Colts 16, Cowboys 13.

Dolphins 14, Redskins 7.

Steelers 16, Vikings 6.

Get the idea?

It’s no coincidence that pro football, our most popular game, has also enjoyed the longest labor peace of any of the major sports. The NFL’s last strike was in 1987; it was then the owners and players arrived at the brilliant conclusion that united we stand, divided we starve (or something like that). In the 17 years since, the league has enjoyed unparalleled success — and there’s no end in sight.

But back to hockey. You’ve heard of the Good War? Well, this is the Good Lockout. That is, if the two parties can come up with an agreement that works — one with a salary cap, perhaps, but also more liberal free agency (which would eliminate much of the need for arbitration). And for goodness sakes, guys, start trusting each other. It can only help the game.

Until you reach that point, there’s no sense in coming back.

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