Few care about NHL's problems

Friday, September 24th 2004, 6:39 am
By: News On 6

(AP)_Today's philosophical brain tickler: If a slap shot clangs off the post and there's no one there to hear it, did it really ever have a chance?

Or to put it in language you might more readily understand: Have you been too busy with baseball's pennant races, the demise of Jerry Rice's streak, soccer practice and the return of "Survivor" to mourn the absence of National Hockey League training camp?

You aren't alone. So for the benefit of the Great Unaware: The lockout (of NHL players by NHL owners) is into its second week. Training facilities are dark. Early-season games are being canceled as we speak.

It's a vicious labor dispute that is everything we were warned it would be. The owners want cost certainty. The players want to retain the right to earn whatever owners are stupid enough to pay. There's no solution in sight.

Not much outrage, either.

At least not here in the lower 48. But that would be part of the problem, wouldn't it? Sure, the NHL is in the throes of the runaway-payroll-as-function-of-nitwit-owners epidemic that afflicts all professional sports leagues these days. And sure, the NHL takes a hit other major sports don't, in that it doesn't translate well to TV (and, by extension, to TV ratings).

The NHL's biggest problem is that it aimed high and missed. Wayne Gretzky's 1988 trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings provided an opportunity for the league to shift its focus -- from its modest, provincial Canadian roots to the United States' expanding, lucrative sun belt. Which is exactly what happened.

That was miscalculation No. 1, and it led to miscalculation No. 2 -- thinking the NHL could run with the big boys.

NHL owners began paying their biggest stars money comparable to what the big stars of baseball, football and basketball were making. It was a nice thought, but it created a false economy because the NHL didn't have a network TV contract to underwrite the madness.

Then again, you don't much care, do you? You don't much care that owners and players have dropped their gloves and assumed the stereo headlock position like a couple of enforcer types, or that they're squaring off in a near vacuum, with scarcely a "Rip his eyes out!" to be heard.

We know you don't care, because we can see the drool stain on your T-shirt. Thanks to the Internet, we also can see Thursday morning's headlines from across what would be the NHL if one were operating today. They tell an enlightening story.

From Tampa, home of the reigning Stanley Cup champion Lightning: "Rays Starter Knocks Off Early".

From New Jersey, home of the 2003 Stanley Cup-winning Devils: "Rutgers gives Waters a raise, contract extension".

From Detroit, home of the 2002 Stanley Cup-winning Red Wings: "NBA Finals replay; Channel 20 plans to telecast all five games."

From Montreal, the last Canadian city to boast a Stanley Cup winner (in 1993): "No end of lockout in sight: NHLPA boss".

Oh, and this from NHL.com, where the ice is always smooth and the skating sublime: "Play SimLeague Hockey".

As if anyone has a choice at this point.

The NHL thought the Gretzky trade was the dawn of manifest destiny. In retrospect, it was a short-sighted money grab. Sure, teams wound up in unlikely places -- San Jose, Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, Miami, Tampa, Raleigh, Columbus. The NHL was able to sell tickets, merchandise and microbrews in those cities. But while they sold the experience, they never truly sold the game.

This is why you should disregard all speculation that the hockey lockout will be a precursor to similar bloody market corrections in other major professional sports. That's a load of rotten octopi.

Hockey is in a unique, and uniquely vulnerable position. The NHL won America's disposable income, but not its heart. Thus, without the full weight of an impassioned U.S. fan and media backlash, it will be hard-pressed to force either management or the players into any kind of meaningful compromise.

We don't have the passion. And Canada, where an entire culture aches and hockey remains the lead headline in the morning paper, can't afford the New NHL.

Meanwhile, NHL players are fleeing to play in Europe (upwards of 150 according at last count), about 50 lower-tier NHL players are trying to launch an it's-better-than-nothing league in the Northeast, and the flames grow higher, ever higher.

It's going to get ugly as Mike Ricci's bad side before it's all over. Then again, if there's no one around to notice, is Ricci really such a bad-looking guy?