NHL's skid off the ice

'Wait 'til next year' is now the best that hockey fans can muster, as salary sparring ends 2005 season

By all appearances, the National Hockey League and its players have turned a crisis into a catastrophe.

Even before Wednesday, few of the signs for professional hockey in America were positive. The league and the sport were slipping into obscurity.

In the months since the lockout began in September, there have been no protests - no angry mobs crashing the gates of arenas even of icebound cities like Minneapolis or Boston. In the years before that, television ratings had slipped into the realm of soccer and World's Strongest Man contests.

Even when the Zambonis were humming, the product on the ice, virtually all admit, had diminished, as the open-ice ballet of skates and sticks that characterized the game of the Great One had disappeared into clutching and grabbing, neutral-zone traps, and goalie pads the size of kitchen appliances.

Then, Wednesday, Feb. 16, happened, and it all seemed to get so much worse. Yes, hockey will eventually be back. And yes, jilted fans will eventually return.

Yet it will be - at least for a while, and perhaps a long while - a changed game. To recover from its lost season of 1994, baseball needed a titanic trip into home run history, something so fantastic that many people now believe it was synthetically produced, an asterisk of deceit and steroids.

Surely, hockey has less to recoup because it had less to lose. But there is little question that it will lose some, if not much, of what it had, and that a league that began before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles - some 50 years before there even was a Super Bowl - will have to start from scratch.

"It will be a shadow of itself," says Jason Kay of the Hockey News.

The players and owners had gotten themselves into a difficult situation no matter what happened. The best-case scenario was a 28-game season that bordered on the farcical, and a Stanley Cup that surely would have included the qualifier "strike-shortened season" everywhere but on the engraving itself.

But in the sports world, where baseball fans bemoan the interminable three months of the off-season, popularity is in direct proportion to presence - on TV, on talk radio. Hockey, ignored throughout much of America, is now certain not to get another peep until September, when the next season will be in jeopardy, unless the sides sign a deal.

Certainly, hockey's financial structure needs major corrections. Even the players acknowledged this in December when they proposed a plan to cut salaries by 24 percent. But even when a compromise deal seemed imminent Wednesday, both sides held out for better - and experts wonder at what cost.

"Everybody agrees that the key in the future will be to establish salary certainty," says Rick Horrow, a sports- business expert in Miami. "But the longer it takes the NHL to get there, the more uncertain their business becomes, and there's more risk that the NHL comes back to an ambivalent, conflicted fan who has found other forms of entertainment."

The wonder of Wednesday - and its lasting impact - was not merely the fact that the sides failed to reach a deal, but rather the manner in which it didn't happen. Both sides abandoned their deal-breakers. The owners agreed to waive "linkage" - the idea that player salaries could only rise when team profits rose. The players at last agreed to a salary cap.

Yet the distance between an owner- proposed $42.5 million cap and a player-proposed $49 million cap was apparently insurmountable. In fact, neither side even made an attempt at further negotiations, instead resolving to stand pat on the owners' "final offer" - this in a process where so-called "final" deadlines appeared to have all the firmness of Jell-O.

"After both sides moved off philosophical differences, they had to get it done," says Kara Yorio of The Sporting News. "It comes off looking like amateur hour."

In the end, there wasn't enough urgency. The owners insist that they lose less money by not playing than by playing under the old contract, and they had built up a war chest in preparation for missing the whole season. Meanwhile, some 400 of the 700 NHL players are now playing in Europe. For many, all that was lost was the season.

Perhaps Wednesday will provide the kindling for a beginning of fan outrage. And perhaps the renewal of professional hockey, whenever it happens, will allow the NHL to essentially relaunch itself with firmer economics and better rules for a more attractive game.

But the irony is that, for the first time in years, those trends actually evolved naturally last season. In 2004, two fast-paced, modestly paid teams made it to the Stanley Cup - a positive sign in a business where each success is dissected, analyzed, and copied.

Says Yorio: "That's the momentum the league is losing now."

Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report.

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