Wednesday, December 29, 2004

THE HOCKEY LOCKOUT BLOG RETURNS (WHO CARES)

Here's the official Lockout Blog for this holiday week... three days early! I've decided to post it now and simply go on vacation again, because there's really nothing to report--- other than that the NHL itself has been completely defeated this holiday season. It's almost as if the NHL is not missed at all.

Hockey fans were waiting with baited breath for the return of the World Junior Hockey Championships on TV. The games from Grand Forks have been getting prime time treatment on TSN and live radio airplay on a network of stations including FAN 590 Toronto, THE TEAM 1200 Ottawa and 570 News Kitchener. TSN has spared no expense, giving the championships big-time treatment and hyping up Sidney Crosby (junior hockey superstar) every chance they get. The Canadian team has been touted as being possibly the best we've ever sent.

The games have packed the joint in Grand Forks with lots of Canadians coming down from Manitoba and elsewhere to cheer the Canadians on. And the games have packed the sports bars in Toronto. Keep in mind that Toronto is not noted for being a junior hockey hotbed. Torontonians are widely seen as nothing-but-Leafs fans. But I can attest, there's lots of interest here in the World Juniors. I was at a sports bar the other day--- okay, it was Hooters, and nobody was watching the Hooters girls, they had packed the joint to see the World Juniors and watch Canada blitz the Swedes. Should Canada make the finals, the bars will be packed again. So yes, it's a Merry Christmas, finally, for the bar owners. A big help has been the fact that the games are live in prime time. Nice to see them on at a normal time, instead of early in the morning all the time.

And if you're a hockey fan there's tons to watch this week. The Spengler Cup is also going on and Team Canada is over in Europe taking on the world, and Rogers Sportsnet is covering the games. Which means there's an abundance of hockey and sports action on the tube right now. I was at a sports bar today in Toronto and there were hockey games on three channels: TSN had the World Juniors, Sportsnet had the Spengler Cup, and Leafs TV had a good NCAA game. To top it all off The Score has been showing bowl games all week for the football fans. So the two most popular team sports in Canada, hockey and football, are on TV all week. And you know, international hockey is good hockey. People like this stuff; they love to see Canada beat up on the Americans, and the evil Russians. For sports fans, life in Canada is good.

Some time ago I accused the NHL owners and players of being a bunch of Grinches for trying to steal hockey fans' Christmas. Well, as they said in the fable, these NHL Grinches didn't stop hockey from coming... it came, just the same. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays indeed, hockey fans, and Happy New Year.

January 1st will be a really big day for football fans because that's when all the traditional big bowl games are played, so I'm sure the NHL will be sorely missed this weekend, this Saturday. Boo hoo.

You know, it's really bizarre, the last couple of weeks. Hockey is all over the tube, Todd Bertuzzi's conditional discharge was all over the papers, and interest in the sport itself is as high as ever. It's really easy in a week like this to say: who cares about the NHL! And the pressure to get a deal done is pretty much nonexistent right now. The NHL board of governors will meet on the 14th of January and it is assumed that this is the "drop dead" date that everyone has been talking about. Speculation after the recent negotiations broke down was still of the hopeful sort, of the "now the real negotiations can begin" variety. But since then there's been absolutely nothing. Now, there's again increasing resignation about the fate of the season. Even the Hockey News, which had been much more hopeful than anyone else about a deal getting done, has printed up some pretty grim assessments of the current situation recently.

Conventional wisdom has it that the owners are going to hang tough, that they will never give in on their demands to bring in a salary cap, and that the only way this thing will get settled is for the players to give in on the salary cap issue to save the season and for that matter the league. It is basically admitted that the only way to save the season is for the players to capitulate.

Some commentators are speculating that the players will rise up against Bob Goodenow and dump him as union boss for making a mess of the negotiations, and bring in someone who isn't so hardline and get a deal done. But the silence has been really deafening from the players so I doubt anyone in the players' ranks is really serious about THAT idea. No, I am pretty certain the players are gonna stick it out with Goodenow, although by the 14th I suspect the pressure will REALLY be on to try and do SOMETHING.

But is there pressure or isn't there? The Americans don't care at all about what's happening, we all know that. Jim Rome on the radio said that hockey's popularity is slipping fast, it's now barely ahead of pro wrestling. Tune into ESPN Radio any time and listen to what they have to say about hockey: nothing. No one in the United States of Football and Baseball cares. The players, seemingly, also don't care. Most of them are over in Europe, whooping it up playing hockey. They are insulated from the Canadian commentators and Canadian sports fans. So most of these guys will feel no pressure, no obligation, to try and save the NHL season, even though they're not making much cash playing in Sweden and Switzerland. This is about principle, darnit! Prime Minister Paul Martin says he's offering mediation to end the lockout, but nobody on either side in this thing is interested that sort of thing. I suspect this is boiling down to a big line in the sand for both sides re: the salary cap, and I suspect everyone on both sides is so convinced the fans will come back that they'd be willing to cancel the whole season, just to get their way. The American teams are supposed to be down to their cult followings anyway, so they figure that THEY'll be back, and Canadians will always support the NHL because hockey is the official sport of Canada, and to not support hockey would be unpatriotic, un-Canadian activity. So all the fans will come back, no matter how badly the NHL treats them, basically because all of them are hard core fans, not like those bandwagon-jumping baseball fans--- or so the theory goes.

Some people are already speculating that this season is OVER. I heard Roger Lajoie last week talking to Stan Fischler on the FAN, and he basically thinks that there won't be any more talks and that it's too late for any deal to get done to salvage the season.

I'm not prepared to write this season off just yet, you never know with these labour disputes. But we should know for sure the fate of the NHL season within two weeks. And yes, I don't see the owners giving an inch on the salary cap. They want revenge. They want blood.

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