- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2005

The NHL is dead.

Dead. Dead. Dead.

It is dead on Fun Street. It is dead in Columbus, Ohio, dead in Nashville, Tenn., dead in Raleigh, N.C., dead in perhaps as many as half its markets.

The NHL is dead, gone, out of here, a victim of its own hubris, a one-of-a-kind professional sports entity.

It is the one league that could least afford to turn its back on its fan base. Yet that is exactly what it has done, ostensibly for a larger good, though what it is, no one can be sure. The lords of the game expanded beyond their means, the owners spent beyond their means, and the players embraced positions beyond their means.

Now the game has elected to be a whole lot of nothing, which is a hard product to peddle to the public.

“We’re planning to have hockey next season,” commissioner Gary Bettman says.

That is the hope, as the two sides go back to crunch the difference between $49 million and $42.5 million, the sticking point in the respective salary-cap proposals. Next season, if it comes to pass, also could come with fewer teams, replacement players and an indifferent public.

That is where it all ended this week, mercifully so, considering the fraudulent alternative of a mini-regular season and a Stanley Cup accursed with a big, fat asterisk. Who could have kept a straight face while lugging it from town to town?

This is where the NHL is: Caps owner Ted Leonsis can consider the cancellation of a season a success, as someone accustomed to losing $20 million a season. That was his self-induced burden. No one pointed a gun to his head and forced him to award Jaromir Jagr a seven-year, $77 million contract.

The implied position of the owners is: Save us from ourselves.

The hardest reality before hockey — and the one Bettman and all the rest appear not to acknowledge — has been the noticeable lack of passion amid its absence. Labor disputes have become all too common in professional sports. Each one usually prompts a taking of sides and regular condemnation on the airwaves and in print. In hockey’s case, at least anywhere south of Broad Street in Philadelphia, hockey’s absence has been accepted with barely a peep.

In the Washington region, there is more than a kernel of truth in the old assertion that the Caps have 15,000-17,000 supporters who attend the games, and not one more than that.

Hockey’s economic correction comes at an especially unsettling time for Leonsis, given what promises to be this region’s romancing of the Nationals. Washington was a baseball town long before it was anything else. There is certain to be a trickle-down effect that intrudes on the Caps.

Is this region large enough to accommodate the economic needs of four major professional sports teams, not counting the Mystics and D.C. United?

If not, the Caps are positioned to be the first to feel the pinch, exacerbated, no doubt, by a lost season and plenty of ill will.

Bettman took the fantasy position that he expects all the fans to return to the NHL. He must mean the fans in Canada and in certain cold-weather locales in the United States. Either that, or he prefers to be blind to the corrosive power of labor disputes in other professional sports leagues. At least in those instances, the level of support was far deeper than anything the NHL can claim.

Infomercials draw higher television ratings than the NHL.

You want to kill a conversation in one of the sports pubs around the region?

Bring up the NHL.

This labor dispute is one for the classroom. This is the blow-it-up-to-save-it strategy of the Vietnam War.

The NHL is only big league with footnotes and qualifiers. It largely has abandoned its Canadian roots in its quest to be on par with the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.

Give the NHL this: It has made history of sorts.

It is the first major professional sports league in North America to blow off a season because of a labor-management squabble.

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