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Down with the ship (cont.)

Posted: Friday February 11, 2005 4:04PM; Updated: Friday February 11, 2005 4:04PM
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Even if the Players' Association loses big in the end -- and its catchy Dec. 9 offer of a 24 percent rollback is a fair indication the halcyon days are over -- Goodenow's legacy will not be as disastrous as Bettman's. He took what was basically a house league under former union boss Alan Eagleson off its leash. He figured out how to use the expired CBA, and in doing so he helped make a lot of players rich. Maybe he should have pushed harder on work-related safety issues -- no-touch icing should have been a priority -- but in his unquenchable thirst for the last dollar for his players, he usually found it. If players take the long view, they might rationalize their idleness as a year -- or even two -- of lost wages being as part of the business of playing in the NHL.


Goodenow earned the faith of his 700-plus membership, which always has been an overly trusting lot. Their often unquestioning belief in Eagleson cost them up-front money, some share in expansion fees and decent pensions. Their faith in Goodenow's ability to win a deal without a hard salary cap might have helped take the game over a cliff. There is a point where principles cross the line into sheer recalcitrance.

There are only two ways this lockout can end: badly or horribly.

Let's start with badly. The lockout already will have cost the league a season, which is a bad thing no matter what happens from here. The NHL, on its way to oblivion anyway (until a criminal act of goonery like Todd Bertuzzi's attack on Steve Moore jerks it back into the public consciousness), has become invisible, mourned by its coterie of fans, but out of the national conversation. As Dallas Stars president Jim Lites noted, even if the NHL opened its doors tomorrow it would be the height of hubris to expect fans to stream back. In a gate-driven league that makes roughly three-fifths of its revenue from ticket sales, the alienation will ripple through the business. The very best of a bad situation would be if the NHL and the union cooled off and returned to negotiations in a few weeks, this time with more creative and mutually acceptable ideas. There would be seven months to hammer out a new deal for a fresh start in the fall.

Of course with the season canceled and the deadline passed, there is hardly any motivation to surrender. (As Mark Twain once noted, the prospect of an imminent hanging tends to focus the mind.) If no deal is in place by the summer, the uncertainty would further damage the business end as corporate sponsors moved their dollars elsewhere. The players would eye Europe again, this time in greater numbers. As Avalanche left winger Paul Kariya told me, "If this thing goes a year, I don't see us being back in October. This could be a year-and-a-half, two years." Alas, this would qualify as the lesser of two evils.

The toxic scenario involves impasse, one that drags hockey through the courts and the nightmare of replacement players. This would get the game back on the ice in the fall, but it could resonate through the rest of the decade. Bitterness does not have a short half-life.

Bettman touted himself as a dealmaker when he started in the job a dozen years ago, an ability that escaped him in the NHL's most parlous moment. Goodenow established a reputation as someone who could win his players a favorable deal, which now seems out of reach. The game is in tatters because of the inability of these lawyers to compromise, to bridge the so-called philosophical differences that hindered a deal. Someone has to take responsibility.