Three billion dollars. This was the offer put on the table by a coterie of Boston-based businessmen to buy the entire National Hockey League puck, stick, and barrel. In the language of the mega rich, their three billion dollar offer is the equivalent of saying that the league is worth little more than a carton of shrimp fried rice and a pack of Kools.
But the great humiliation was not so much the offer. It’s the fact that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman felt like he had to take it seriously. "We felt we should hear them out," said a Bettman spokesperson. This was a definitive statement that the NHL, once one of the big four North American sports along with the NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball, is now on a tier with indoor soccer and box lacrosse. Bettman’s NHL limps not only behind the aforementioned "Big Three" but also NASCAR, men’s and women’s college basketball, college football, Arena Football, and the Westminster Dog Show. A terrier with a silicone snout has more star power than anyone in Bettman’s locked out, shut down, sclerotic NHL.
As professor Andrew Zimbalist said, "What [the three billion dollar offer] does say is that there are people out there that see much more potential and value in hockey if the league is run properly. They think the asset value of the franchises has been so depreciated by mismanagement and the lockout that there’s an opportunity to get a bargain.”
To make matters worse, Bettman delivered a speech announcing his plan for restarting play this fall. Making peace with the crisis of overproduction that is the National Hockey League, Bettman announced that every one of the NHL’s thirty teams would return. That means hockey hotbeds like Columbus, Nashville, and Atlanta will see action this October. The same can’t be said however for the players. Bettman in his next breath dropped the other skate, publicly threatening permanent replacements this fall. Yes, the one thing that can save the NHL, in Bettman’s mind, is scab hockey.
Other than the moral abhorrence of this practice, it signifies little more than the fact that Bettman has been in the Sunbelt too long. The Commish might be served to remember that hockey is also played and watched in Canada. Using scab players would in fact violate Canadian labor law, where unionists are protected against job loss while on strike or locked out. This would make games in places like Montreal, Toronto, and Edmonton the site of picket line combat and a potential legal nightmare.
Also, while US workers have no such labor protections, the key cradles of US hockey – places like Detroit, Buffalo, Philly and Pittsburgh – don’t take kindly to picket crossers.
As Al Strachan of the Toronto Sun wrote about the prospect of scab hockey, "It’s a desperate step, a virtual legal minefield, but [Bettman] has no choice now. He promised too many owners a hard cap [mandatory spending limits on players to make up for budget problems rooted in over-expansion] and he is backed into a corner. If the owners think replacement players will restore credibility to their sport, they have been misled. It will only make the NHL more of a travesty than it is already."
While Bettman meanders without a plan, his iron clad United Front of owners seems to be rusting at the thought of how filled their empty arenas would be with scab hockey and picket lines as the main attraction. "We just want to get this thing started again," Islanders general manager Mike Milbury said. "We want to be playing in the fall and we want these players to be part of it." Los Angeles Kings president Tim Leiweke said it was to the best interest of both sides to work toward a new Collective Bargaining Agreement "before we kill the sport." Other owners have been observed by beat reporters as rushing to their cars tight lipped and steaming after hearing Bettman’s latest plans to scab their way toward a "hard cap."
Meanwhile, the players — after seeming to wither toward the end of negotiations — are straightening their backs and holding firm. They have offered to cut their pay, but they refuse to have the owners crisis of overproduction solved on their backs. As Islanders representative Mark Parrish said, "The union has bent, but right now we are stronger and more united than ever."
They should be united. Because if both sides come together and end the lockout on the owner’s terms, an NHL with a hard cap and thirty bloated teams won’t be addressing the root of it’s problem: the product on the ice.
Fans who grew up on the thrilling breakneck sport simply do not recognize the ugly product being put out on the ice. Hockey, because of its comical Sun Belt expansion, is finding its skilled players marginalized by a glut of grabbing, pawing, clunking defensemen. I received this letter after writing the column ‘CSI: How the Owners destroyed Hockey‘ two weeks ago, which I believe says it all.
"Dear Dave, I read your column on the NHL. I am a Canadian. I loved hockey when I was young, in the early sixties. Many of the players were (as you mentioned) French Canadian, small, tough, extremely fast, and highly skilled. Lots of them were under 5 foot 10 inches tall. Except boxing, no sport can compare to the excitement of good hockey. I don’t know how old you are, but maybe you got to see Bobby Hull take the puck behind his own net, and blaze through the entire opposition team, blast a shot and score. He could do that cause he wasn’t hooked, speared, or tackled the way it’s done now. ëFinish the check’ the experts like to say. What crap. The end of the NHL for me started with the ‘Broad Street Bullies’ the late sixties Philadelphia flyers. They had some good players, but their main skill was grabbing, spearing, cross checking, boarding, hooking, holding, and fighting. Those things used to get penalties; Not anymore; They won the Stanley Cup. It’s been straight downhill ever since, cause the team owners didn’t and don’t know didley squat about hockey, or didn’t care. Its hilarious to hear any of them talk about "Saving the Game" they destroyed years ago."
Reading this makes it all too clear that fans deserve better than the stewards of the National Hockey League, who no matter what their rhetorical flourishes don’t seem to give a damn about a sport that has in the past meant so much to so many. Scab hockey hold no solution to this and should be opposed by hockey fans across the continent.
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" will be in stores in June 2005. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com