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Collective yawn

NHL is digging its own grave thanks to its labor woes

Posted: Wednesday January 12, 2005 1:08PM; Updated: Wednesday January 12, 2005 5:10PM
Pavel Kubina
These fans enjoyed hockey last season, but there's no cheering now.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Lost amid the unbridled excitement surrounding Randy Moss' caboose is the sad fact that a major league is quietly committing suicide in the shadows.

With no talks on the horizon, the NHL is on the brink of becoming the first North American pro league to lose an entire season to a labor imbroglio. None other than the sport's greatest icon -- Wayne Gretzky -- recently expressed the fear that the seemingly intractable dispute between the league and the players association could send next season to the sin bin, too. From the look of things, the NHL might as well go because it won't be missed.

According to a recent poll USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, 50 percent of the sports fans surveyed said they would not be disappointed if the 2004-05 season were canceled. Just 12 percent said they would be "very disappointed." And ESPN2's replacement programming (lower-tier college hoops contests, potato racing, mumblety-peg) is attracting double the viewers that NHL games brought in. Management has clearly picked a hideously bad time to take a my-way-or-the-highway approach to collective bargaining.

We're not in 1988 anymore, Toto. That was the year the Great Gretzky went to L.A. with a ringing of bells and blaring of trumpets, and the NHL began boldly spreading into Florida, Texas, Ohio, Tennessee, and Georgia. It's stunning how quickly the Coolest Game on Ice succumbed to the big chill.

I've often wondered why the NHL has never been more popular in the U.S. A red meat baseball and football fan, I was turned on to the New York Islanders after I moved back to New York from San Francisco in 1980. The speed, skill, color, intensity -- I've never experienced such explosive passion watching any other sport. My love affair with the NHL was the reason I decided to become a sportswriter instead of pursuing a more lucrative career critiquing Judas Priest and other musical luminaries. Hockey is still the one sport I wish I'd played, but it may well be like liver and onions: beloved by few, avoided by many.

America's collective yawn is said to be due to the game not being native to the U.S., and also being expensive and hard to play. Yes, but if inexpensive or relatively easy sports generated the most fans, soccer would be king here. Also, I've often heard that hockey is hard to follow and appreciate on TV. I picked it up pretty quick by watching the tube. Others point to the lack of scoring in recent years, thanks to the stultifying neutral zone trap. Maybe, but I like sports where you have to work hard for your points. And does the fighting turn people off? Please.

It's likely that the NHL's ills are the result of a toxic mix of all those factors plus the harsh reality that games are expensive to attend and there are way too many of them competing for your time, attention and entertainment dollar. The NFL's 16-game regular season and six-month offseason allows anticipation to build. NBA and NHL seasons seem to go on forever and Major League Baseball is starting to feel that way, too.

For me, the sad state of the NHL is mirrored by the fate of my beloved Islanders, who went from dynasty and model organization to the Baudelaire Orphans. Beginning in 1995, they endured four sudden ownership changes and a season wearing silly "Fish stick" uniforms that spit in the eye of their glory years. There was the attempted purchase of the team in 1997 by John "Count Olaf" Spano, a gold-plated grifter who was unanimously approved by the NHL's Board of Governors only to end up in the federal pokey on bank and wire fraud charges.

That shabby farce was followed by the penurious regime of Howard "Millstone" Millstein, who only had eyes for the real estate surrounding the Nassau Coliseum, which became the Nassau Mausoleum. And then came computer magnate Charles Wang, who has had only middling success ending a nine-year run of numbing mediocrity.

Greed. Ineptitude. Gross miscalculation. It's no wonder you need a Geiger counter to find people who care about the NHL. Salary cap or not, the league may find itself starting over with its Original Six teams if this mess continues much longer.

The Honest Ollie's Auto Mall Readers' Corner

This week, we proudly present more fun with quirky announcers:

Your reference to Ralph Kiner's [Manufacturer's Hangover] malapropism reminds me of Bob Prince in Pittsburgh and his sponsor, the makers of "Old Frothingslosh, the pale stale ale so light the foam is on the bottom." -- Tudor Hall, Columbus, Ohio

Jason Clayton of St. Louis, Mo., kindly shared the following gems from Cardinals' broadcaster Mike Shannon:

Things are not always as they appear to be as.

Gilkey was originally born in University City.

Like spring makes the rains come, so does the edge of the plate grow.

The Dodgers are ahead by five runs or three runs or in between there somewhere.

Well, no one's perfect. Only one guy was ever perfect, Jack, and they nailed him to a tree!

When the Cardinals were putting up a statue of Lou Brock outside Busch Stadium, Shannon said, "So come on down and see Lou Brock's erection..."

In honor of the late, great NHL, I'll see your Mike Shannon and raise you a Mike Lange, the Pittsburgh Penguins broadcaster who is legendary for his colorful and often bizarre exclamations:

Get in the fast lane, Grandma, the bingo game is ready to roll.

He's smiling like a butcher's dog.

I'll be cow kicked.

Let's go hunt a moose on a Harley.

Never teach a pig to sing.

Scratch my back with a hacksaw.

She wants to sell my monkey.

He hasn't scored since the eighth grade picnic.

He should get 5 to 10 for robbery on that save.

He was hit so hard his kids will be born dizzy.

More patience than Mercy Hospital.

If you have any local favorites, send 'em along. Now, let us conclude this week's solemn business with a final word on naming rights madness:

Just to add to Shayne Miller's comments, we could hold the Toilet Bowl in .. ready? ... Flushing, Michigan. Groan. -- John Powell, Warner Robins, Ga.

Or Flushing, Queens, which already has a rich history of gridiron futility as the former home of the New York Jets.