- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

The NHL lockout is being implemented on thin ice.

The NHL, after all, is the least of the four major sports leagues, hardly robust enough to endure a protracted absence.

As Canada’s leading export to the United States, the NHL appeals to the cold-weather states and pockets of die-hards about the nation. It is hardly a transcendent endeavor in the United States, as Capitals owner Ted Leonsis knows only too well.

The Redskins are the quasi-religion of the region, the Caps somewhere in the entertainment mix after the Wizards and the Maryland football and basketball programs.

This is not a knock on hockey, a worthy game, just the geographical reality of a region that rarely receives ice time from Mother Nature each winter. Lots of us did not grow up with youth hockey.

The NHL owners have decided to respond to the obvious — with crossed fingers, no doubt.

Their business model is broken, as Leonsis pointed out on his team’s Web site. The salaries of the players have advanced beyond the means of all too many owners in the last decade.

There is plenty of blame to go around, starting with the NHL’s decision to move into a number of questionable markets, Nashville, Tenn., and Columbus, Ohio, among others. That merely exacerbated the NHL’s financial distress. The signs are everywhere, if anyone bothers to read them, which could be the problem.

The players prefer to live in the land of the make-believe, which is to say the multi-billion-dollar land of David Stern, Bud Selig and Paul Tagliabue, whose margins for mismanagement are far greater than the NHL’s.

The NHL has come to the lockout with a modest television contract and plummeting ratings and attendance figures. This is the cold reality that eventually will cut through the intransigence of the NHL Players Association.

As the Uncle Fester of the sports neighborhood, the NHL owners have no choice but to curb the penthouse tastes of the players.

Leonsis, in particular, raised his economic white flag by dumping several high-priced players last season, notably Jaromir Jagr. It was a high-profile act of capitulation that validated his contention of economic folly more than a random plea of poverty and a show of empty pockets.

For now, the players cling to the fanciful notion of an ownership bloc that earns far more revenue than it shows. It must be the hidden loot from all those Jagr jersey sales.

The NHL players insist they never will agree to a salary model connected to revenue, as employed in the NFL and NBA. That is a seemingly reasonable solution the players adamantly oppose, mostly because the living has been so good as the average player salary climbed to $1.8million.

So the NHL has succumbed to the measure of last resort, jumping into the abyss of uncertainty.

The turn-off element is pronounced. The public inevitably has a difficult time embracing millionaire union members who position themselves in the company of the humble sweatshop worker. The absurdity doubles as an insult to those who scrimp and save to attend the games.

Both sides have been reduced to issuing threats of eternal intolerance. The players are packing up their sticks and skates and moving to Europe, the owners preparing to dip into their rainy day fund.

This promises to be the mother of all lockouts, with a genuine risk before the game.

If the NHL disappeared for a season or two, would anyone south of the border bother to notice its return?

The NHL is hardly the first sports enterprise to run out of compromises. Yet it is the first one to do so in such a fragile state, which is too bad.

Hockey is a tough, hard game of grace that has overextended itself. Its golden goose is cooked unless fundamental changes are employed or, worse yet, teams are contracted.

It is up to the players to accept the limitations of the NHL and see that an economic correction is preferable to going on life support.

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