From the bench to the barstool, hockey's suicide season already taking its toll

Friday, February 18th 2005, 2:49 pm
By: News On 6

Imagine the teeth-gnashing if a labor dispute deprived Yankee Stadium of baseball for at least 17 months, or the wailing over no football at Green Bay's history-steeped Lambeau Field.

In puckthirsty cities like Detroit, which proudly dubs itself Hockeytown, such is the level of despair among fans whose loyalty looks less like sports obsession and more like family ties.

The Red Wings are to many what Motown once was to popular music _ the heart, the soul, the raison d'etre. Team captain Steve Yzerman's multistory image hovers over the city square where three Stanley Cups have been celebrated.

But Joe Louis Arena is dark now, all because of the first full-season shutdown of a major North American pro sports league. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Wednesday canceled what was left of a season that never started, plunging the league into an entirely new and unpredictable ice age.

``I'm ashamed by what we did,'' Los Angeles Kings president Tim Leiweke said, invoking unusually blunt criticism of owners and players alike. ``Smart people should have solved this by today.''

Rumors exist that a deal could still be made that would reverse the cancellation, but those appear to be nothing more than false hopes.

``A lot of that is, nobody's willing to deal with the reality that the season is over. There's no way to get it back,'' New York Rangers player representative Tom Poti said Friday. ``I'd say there's zero chance of anything happening.''

The emotional damage from the NHL's suicide season ranges beyond the hockey faithful, and the economic destruction touches more than millionaires such as the Rangers' Jaromir Jagr, the NHL's highest-paid player last season at $11 million; and billionaires such as Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.

Thousands of NHL club employees' pay and work weeks were slashed when the lockout began months ago. The 500 to 1,000 seasonal workers at each arena, from popcorn poppers to Zamboni drivers, will miss up to 41 game paychecks, not counting the playoffs.

And the minimum-wage-plus-tips workers at countless hockey-dependent restaurants such as Pittsburgh's Ruddy Duck, Boston's Halftime Pizza _ and yes, Detroit's Hockeytown Cafe _ had their very livelihoods blindsided.

``I'm sick when we go around to the restaurants,'' Columbus Blue Jackets president Doug MacLean said. ``Some of the managers get mad at me: When are you playing? When are you playing? I don't blame them. It's devastating for them.''

In St. Paul, Minn., where the city's honeymoon with the expansion Minnesota Wild is going strong after four years, officials estimate a loss of $369,000 in sales tax income during the months the team would have been playing.

Joe Kasel, who owns the Eagle Street Grille across the street from St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, said he has laid off 28 employees since the lockout began. ``We do what we can to get through it. It's all we can do,'' Kasel said between waiting and bussing tables, serving drinks and handling checks _ all part of his now 80-hour work week.

At 242, a bar down the street, no amount of effort could keep the business going. The owners have taped a note on the entrance: ``242 will be closed, indefinitely, due to 'cost uncertainty' and high player salaries.''

At a Sports Authority store in suburban Philadelphia, hockey merchandise sales have dropped to near zero.

``I bet we haven't sold a hockey shirt in two months,'' store manager Joe Tarantino said. ``They're not playing. Why are you going to buy a shirt and wear it for nothing?''

Hockey's labor mess dates to the last player-owner negotiations in 1995, when the league agreed to a deal that put little restraint on player salaries. By last season, the average salary was $1.8 million _ about $500,000 more than the average salary in the flourishing NFL.

``It's crazy,'' Islanders general manager Mike Milbury said. ``Twenty years ago when I played, we didn't have in the dressing room catalogs of `Christie's Great Estates of the World.' I mean, these (players) are wealthy people, millionaires.''

The only surprise of the five-month lockout came in its final days, when each side made a major concession.

The league backed off its demand for ``cost certainty,'' or tying players' salaries to revenue. The union, in turn, accepted the idea of a salary cap, something chief Bob Goodenow vowed never to do.

But the two sides never closed the gap between the $42.5 million per team cap offered by the league and the union's $49 million proposal.

Now, both sides are wondering if a sport whose U.S. TV ratings more closely resembled those of the WNBA and professional poker than the NFL or NBA will ever regain its casual fans.

``The game's just suffered an absolute blow it'll never recover from,'' Carolina Hurricanes center Rod Brind'Amour said. ``They're totally underestimating the damage that's been done. I'm just really disappointed and, to be honest with you, I'm embarrassed to be a player in the NHL.''

Teams are scrambling to mend fences with their season-ticket holders long before play resumes, offering free concert and game tickets, big discounts on souvenirs and other amenities to those who don't cancel their seats.

Bettman, now under more pressure than ever to hit a home run for the owners, is all but promising the league will play a full 2005-06 schedule. But if a deal isn't reached by next fall, the NHL can play only by declaring an impasse, allowing it to employ replacement players _ a strategy that flopped in baseball and football's past labor battles.

Seeking such a declaration is a risky gambit at best, especially since two Canadian provinces with NHL teams forbid replacement workers.

``There are so many uncertainties,'' New Jersey Devils center John Madden said. ``Are fans going to come in and watch replacement players? Are fans going to cross the line? Is any of this stuff going to happen? It's all unknown, and it's not good news.''

Mario Lemieux, who has a unique perspective as the game's best-known player and also the Pittsburgh Penguins' owner, said both sides got hockey into this mess _ and both sides must pay as a result.

``The game is going to suffer for a couple of years and it's going to take time to win back our fans and rebuild the business,'' he said. ``And the players are going to have to share in that.''

At Detroit's Hockeytown Cafe, the small lunch crowd grew quiet for the NHL's season-ending announcement. Waiters in Red Wings jerseys watched with somber faces. A manager shook her head.

Even these hockey-obsessed fans will need to be wooed back after such a deep freeze, admitted Red Wings general manager Ken Holland.

``Eventually, when we get a deal and back on the ice, I think it's going to take a lot of work on our part to try to reconnect,'' Holland said. ``There's going to have to be a healing process I think between everybody.''