Friday, October 29, 2004

NHL LOCKOUT UPDATE

Now that the baseball playoffs are over I figure it's time for another NHL Lockout Update for those of you still out there concerned about the lockout and how people are handling it. I thought I might as well get it out of the way tonight and leave the weekend free and clear so we can turn this site over to full coverage of the U.S. elections.

CFL KEEPING SPORTS FANS OCCUPIED

Well, the baseball season is officially, completely and totally over now, leaving sports fans in this country in the predictable hole. There's no NHL to occupy our thoughts whatsoever across this country. Thank G for the CFL, though, and we'll have college football and the NFL to occupy us for the next few days. And next week the NBA comes back- just in time, thank G.

The crowds for CFL football have been tremendous- attendance is way up in both Hamilton and Toronto, in part due to the lockout. The CFL is definitely getting a lot of exposure because it's the only game in town in a lot of places and has the highest profile of all the leagues still out there; and the playoffs are coming next week. The crummy Toronto Raptors return next week, but nobody cares about them. It's pretty much accepted that the Raptors are going to be terrible, again. But people are talking about them. Bottom line is, life is going on without the NHL.

And die-hard hockey fans are learning to accept the fact that there's no NHL to follow, so they're packing the rink to see the other sports. In Vancouver, Canuck fans are getting used to watching the WHL Vancouver Giants. Calgary fans have the Hitmen to follow. Edmonton fans are packing the Rexall Centre to watch the new AHL Edmonton Roadrunners. Ottawa has the 67s to follow, and there's plenty of junior action in the vicinity of Montreal and Toronto. Toronto has it the best right now: there's 4 OHL teams within a 50-mile radius, and it's only a short drive to Hamilton to watch the AHL Bulldogs. And if Toronto fans get tired of hockey, there's the Raptors and the Argos, and soon the Toronto Rock. People are coping quite well, but Saturday nights remain empty. That is the worst part of the lockout: the destruction of our Canadian Saturday tradition, and no Coach's Corner.

And even American fans are suffering. A few Rangers fans- still reeling from the Yankees' collapse in the baseball playoffs- called up WFAN to moan about the lack of hockey this week.
So it ain't just Canada, folks, it's all hockey fans who are suffering.

And more NHL players are leaving North America to play hockey elsewhere. Bryan McCabe just announced he's going to play in Sweden.

RUMBLINGS OF UNION DISCONTENT

Fans are now getting their hopes up about a potential break in the union ranks. There's been a lot of talk about Mike Commodore of the Flames saying he'd accept a salary cap, and there's been a few other comments by a few other low-level NHLers who would rather be playing hockey and would go along with a cap. So people are now getting excited and think the union may crumble. The union leaders and many of the other players, meanwhile, are struggling to put a lid on all these pro-cap comments. Hardliners like Todd Marchant and Bryan McCabe are talking to reporters and going on the radio to denounce all these comments by these out-of-line bigmouths. Once again the NHLPA is taking a PR hit and it's been one PR debacle after another for the players.

The team player reps are going to meet next Tuesday and rumblings of discontent among the rank and file are said to be at the top of the agenda. But then who knows? The conventional wisdom from the media hacks here seems to be that (a) both sides are so far apart on the salary cap issue that the league will be out for the entire season and (b) union members actually wouldn't mind a salary cap, so get your hopes up, fans! Media guys, get with it, it's either (a) or (b), it's not both! Figure out which it is and then tell us what's happening for goodness sakes!

It reminds me of Howard Berger's breathless reporting on the FAN 590: the Leafs would always be so close to making that big monster trade for some big star player who's dying to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and then the trade would never happen and Leafs fans would all be disappointed. It never fails! I don't trust ANY of the sports reporters in this town covering this lockout. You're better off actually talking to actual owners and players yourself to find out if there's gonna be a season or not.

What a lot of fans are hoping for is for the NHL to make their official proposal to the players union and declare an impasse as soon as possible. Then Gary Bettman can impose the salary cap unilaterally whether the union likes it or not. The union will then go on strike, Bettman will bring the replacement players in, the regular NHLers will cross the picket line and the union will be broken and normal NHL hockey will resume with regular players.

People think this scenario is actually doable and I happen to agree- it's certainly viable. The problem is that a lot of silly people think the current season can be saved under this scenario and there's not a chance of that happening. This is likely to play out over a much longer time frame and it's unlikely replacements will come in before the 2005 season begins- it'll take a long time for an impasse to even be declared. So even under this scenario the 2004-2005 season will be completely wiped out and countless damage will be inflicted on the sport of hockey. This will do NOTHING to save the season, and replacement hockey will be a SPECTACLE. We won't see good hockey or top players, but you can bet there will be lots of fights. Think about it: Ron MacLean and Don Cherry at the Air Canada Centre next season, bringing you Replacement Hockey Night in Canada with all these goons, no-names and bums. Terrible idea. I rant, but I have to counter all the bull out there about how replacement NHL hockey is such a great idea because it will break the union. It'll break the union, all right, but the sport will be a laughingstock. It turns my stomach even thinking about it.

The only question is whether the union capitulates sooner than later on the salary cap/cost certainty issue, and I have a sneaky feeling that by December the pressure will really be on everyone involved and we'll probably see both sides moving off their current hardline positions. I'm more optimistic of seeing that scenario play out after this week, with these reports of dissent in the rank-and-file of the union. Maybe the union will eventually see the light of day and realize they're going to get stuck with some kind of salary cap whether they like it or not, and that they should simply cut the best deal they can and not inflict any long-term damage on the NHL. A couple of weeks ago, I was really pessimistic about things, but I have to believe common sense is slowly starting to enter the picture with all these dumbbells in the NHL, and that we'll have hockey in January. We hope.

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