After months of what was essentially radio silence from both sides, the NHL lockout finally got interesting. Puckheads stayed up into the wee hours of Wednesday as commissioner Gary Bettman and union head Bob Goodenow engaged in a public exchange of faxes that moved from civil to terse to caustic faster than the typical Rangers-Islanders match.
The verbal rally read like Woody Allen's old and hilarious essay The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers, in which two snobby old coots play an increasingly contentious game of chess through the mail. ("I have just spent the better part of a week sorting out the miasma of lunatic alibis known as your correspondence...") Allen's characters eventually give up on chess and take up Scrabble. On Wednesday afternoon, Bettman and Goodenow simply gave up.
Their exchange made for fascinating reading -- more entertaining, frankly, then what we would have gotten had there been actual NHL action Tuesday. But it also drained any last drops of nobility that might have remained in this Canadian standoff.
Two days ago Bettman and Goodenow were separated by a vast philosophical divide, locked in the mortal struggle of labor vs. management, cost certainty vs. the free market, big government vs. little, millionaires vs. billionaires. In fewer than 36 hours, with yet another deadline for canceling the season looming, both sides caved. The owners suddenly didn't really need that link between league-wide revenues and payroll expenses. Out of the blue, players could live with the unthinkable: a salary cap.
A brave new world, right? Wrong. Today we have exactly what we've always assumed we would -- a cancelled season -- and it seems sillier and more pointless than ever. Bettman and Goodenow are pettier than ever, arguing not over big theoretical concepts but over how to split $6.5 million. That's the rough difference between the final salary-cap proposals made by the league ($42.5 million) and the players ($49 million).
You have to hand it to the two protagonists in this tragedy: They have a unique genius for taking an already disastrous situation and making it worse, like dentists who schedule a root canal months in advance and on the morning of the operation tell you they no longer accept insurance. It would have been hard enough to tell constituents (owners, the union rank-and-file and, most important, fans) that a season is dead because the two sides can't agree on an economic model for a sport losing its grip on its major-league status.
But they had agreed, or at least were moving closer. A sport is now being shut down not over grand concepts, but over nothing more than a shameless money grab. Mike Leclerc, a winger for the Mighty Ducks, said it best. "To be this close, they have to make a deal," he told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday night. "It would be disgraceful to cancel the season."
Bettman and Goodenow long ago dragged the game into disgrace; even if they settled, a 28-game season and ensuing Stanley Cup playoff would be little more than an asterisk-ridden sham.
Where does the sport go from here? Nowhere, at least as long as Bettman and Goodenow are in charge. (Bettman has to go, and the eyebrows raised by many players when the union capitulated to a salary cap Monday suggest Goodenow is losing his grip on his followers.) We're facing a long spring and summer of sputtering talks leading to labor impasse, at which point hockey fans must consider if their love for the game is deep enough to drive them to cheer -- and pay -- for replacement players.
Players and owners still don't trust each other; their rhetoric is growing nastier by the day. There has been no meaningful talk between the sides on what really ails the sport: the low-grade quality of the games themselves. On Tuesday night, the hockey world was tantalizingly close to being whole again. Now it's more fractured than ever.