- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2005

Why all the long faces, hockey fans? Yesterday was a great day for Your Heroes, one that will go down in annals of sports history. NHL players are now so filthy rich ” thanks to your generous contributions ” that they can afford to take an entire year off.

Thank heaven for those right-to-not-work laws.

We haven’t lived in the same neighborhoods as hockey players for a while now, but in one respect we’re still alike: We can only do what our bank balance allows us to. If there’s no room in the family budget for season tickets, then we settle for partial plans or the occasional single-game splurge. Same goes for Mr. NHL Star (or even Mr. NHL rank-and-filer). If he didn’t have the means to sit out a year, as short as many careers are, there’s no way in Saskatoon he would.

So let us marvel at the material gains made by hockey players in the last decade, at the quadrupling of payrolls since the 1995 CBA. It has enabled them to resist the notion of a salary cap until the 11th hour of negotiations and, ultimately, to wave off the owners’ Final Offer of a $42.5 million per team cap.

Baseball players have never blown off an entire season ” have never come close, really. Ditto footballers and basketballers. Apparently their pockets weren’t as deep as their hockey brethren … or is it that their world-view wasn’t as narrow?

But I come not to bash the NHLPA; I come to praise it. Its members, after all, have attained such affluence over the years that they can tell their bosses to Take This Job and Shove It ” and then go back to their native lands and play for $50 a game and a bowl of borscht. You’ve heard of the Haves and the Have Mores (President Bush’s term)? Well, hockey players, it would seem, are the Have Everythings.

(Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ricky Williams was inspired to make a comeback ” in the NHL. It’s definitely his kind of league. He and Jaromir Jagr could go halfsies on a tent in the Australian Outback.)

Gary Bettman was rightly contrite during yesterday’s press conference. In fact, the commissioner probably apologized more times than Jason Giambi. But unlike the Buddy Love of baseball, Bettman specified what he was sorry about ” denying North America’s hockey addicts their 2004-2005 fix, testing their patience and straining their allegiance.

“Our fans deserve better,” he said. “The people who earn their livelihoods from our game deserve better.”

You’ve got that right, Gary. I mean, the ads for “Drivers” in the classifieds ain’t for Zamboni drivers.

But this, alas, is the price of financial independence. We’ve always known the owners were financially independent; folks on food stamps don’t buy sports franchises. But who realized the players were so flush that … that … that they could flush a whole season down the toilet? Talk about labor progress.

So enough with this “tragedy” business. A tragedy is when a puck goes flying off the ice and kills a 13-year-old girl, not when two sides of a contract negotiation ” Rich and Richer ” decide to kill a hockey season. And it was, make no mistake, a mutual decision. As Jordan Baker said in “The Great Gatsby,” it takes two to make an accident.

Bettman kind of gave himself away when he said, “Everything we heard was that [the union] needed [the cap] to be in the high 40s” ” millions of dollars, that is. Let’s examine this statement for a moment, shall we? If the owners really wanted to strike a deal, why would they make a Final Offer the union couldn’t (or wouldn’t) accept? Answer: Because they really didn’t want to strike a deal. At this point, the season being mostly shot anyway, they were all for letting the players bleed a little more, even if it cost themselves some money.

But the players, bless ‘em, didn’t blink. You can do stuff like this when your average salary is $1.8 million. You can go to Europe, sample the wines, take a few slap shots in the Swiss B league and Wait It Out. Is this a great country or what?

Me, I’m not worried about the NHL at all. It’ll be back when it’s back (and if some of the players end up breaking ranks with the union, boy, will we see some hittin’ then!) No, my concerns are much more parochial. What’s weighing on my mind ” keeping me up at night, even ” is this:

If there’s no season, does that mean the Caps get the first pick in the draft again?

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