The players aren't to blame ... yet

Updated: October 20, 2004, 3:32 PM ET
By John Buccigross | Special to ESPN.com

It always surprises me in times of athletic labor strife that players take a Ryan VandenBussche beating from fans.

We've seen it in every sport across the board. Even when the topic is paying NCAA athletes, fans would rather have a bunch of rich white men keep the money instead of the mostly poor- to middle-class athletes who provide the revenue.

LOCKOUT LIP
Chris Chelios''Gary Bettman has put the league in this situation ... 'A guy who doesn't do his job shouldn't be there ... He put hockey where it shouldn't belong. You get rid of six or seven teams that don't belong where they are ... Some states just aren't marketable, some cities. Hockey's not a national sport in the U.S., and Gary Bettman doesn't have a feel for that. That's my opinion."

-- Chris Chelios to the Detroit Free Press
I've been in the same room as NHL players and NHL owners, and I can tell you I'd rather Steve McKenna have a few million dollars than Ed Snider. Nearly every NHL player grew up in similar economic and social circumstances as you did. Nearly every NHL owner did not. While Steve Yzerman grew up playing Battleship, Stratego and Strat-O-Matic baseball, most of the NHL owners were getting their chest hairs tinted at a Four Seasons spa.

NHL owners have dedicated themselves largely to making money, to doing everything they can to squeeze vendors, municipalities, little people and to some extent YOU. THAT's their concern. And keep that in mind throughout this. They largely don't care about the history or the overall good of the game. They can say all they want in the papers, but a beautiful tape-to-tape pass, or a perfectly executed breakout does not get owners' blood flowing. They wouldn't know Bill Lindsay from Lindsay Lohan.

Some owners, however, are better then others. While Mike Ilitch has had an insatiable appetite for championships, Bill Wirtz and Jeremy Jacobs have shown little concern, which is the primary reason for their championship droughts.

Players play for the money, of course. It's their job. We all need income. But players are programmed to play and compete. That is their total mindset. Workout, play, workout, play, a little love you long time, watch "The OC," and a little Blue and they are good.

There are examples of when players and agents selfishly took advantage of new NHL markets, like what Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk did to Anaheim and Phoenix. But, for the most part, players have had contracts handed to them or simply followed the rules of arbitration, qualifying offers and entry-level contracts. Don't be mad at them. You can be mad at Bob Goodenow, or agents, or shortsighted GMs or selfish owners, but the last group you should be angry with is the players.

Back in September, over Labor Day weekend, I attended the wedding of Ray Ferraro and Cammi Granato in Vancouver, British Columbia. Almost all of Cammi's teammates from Team USA and Chicken Parm's friends, like Andrew Brunette of the Minnesota Wild and free agent Steve McKenna from the planet Lovetron, were part of the small gathering. These are all fun-loving, soulful people who love life, love what they do and are not greedy, materialistic bores. Players didn't make the rules they simply followed them. And anyone who watches and covers NHL games knows that nearly 100 percent of the players give 100 percent nearly 100 percent of the time. They are in shape, ready to play and, to me, exciting to watch.

There is no mistake that the owners made a bad deal the last time around. The current rules that are in play, from entry-level contracts to arbitration to qualifying offers to contract buyouts don't make economic sense, and they should be and will changed. To what degree is what this is all about. But don't blame the players for that, and don't hate them for being wealthy. Who would you rather have an extra million bucks, Darren McCarty or James Dolan?

This is a complicated negotiation in some respects because so much has to be changed, mostly the mindset of the industry. That's what's being negotiated. A mindset. It is the most important negotiation in the careers of Bob Goodenow and Gary Bettman. Neither wants to be taken to the cleaners and have their legacy crosschecked. Don't be mad at the players. At this point, they are not the story. They are on the sidelines, a group of yes men drinking the Goodenow Kool-Aid. Their time will come in December when their season and, for some, careers are on the line.

That's when they will need to take a much more active role in their futures. Unions are important and vital in preventing and changing unfair working conditions. They become a negative when workers can't determine their own futures and make their own decisions. At some point, the players need to step up and demand to get a deal done. The veterans are losing money they and their kids will never see again. And for a large group of players the next CBA deal will have little affect on them because so many have multiyear contracts.

So during this empty time, try to restrain your anger toward the players as much as possible. They are not really part of the equation yet. Neither side has put their best offer on the table. That will come in December.

In the meantime, be patient, and try to keep positive thoughts towards the players. Watch classic sports, play video games, slew-foot your mom, butt end Lindsay Lohan (Hey Now!), go to an NCAA or AHL game, watch "Miracle" once a day, or just imagine the soothing sounds of a Barry Melrose laugh. This will all pass. Someday. Keep as much love in your hearts for the players. They are not the villains here. They are just doing what they always do -- listening to their coaches and playing hard.

On Sept. 7, 1988, the NHL's board of governors approved the sale of the Hartford Whalers to Donald Conrad and Richard Gordon. Almost six years later, on June 28, 1994, Gordon sold the Whalers to Peter Karmanos for $47.5 million.

Ron Francis
Hartford Whalers captain Ron Francis was traded to Pittsburgh in 1991. By the time he rejoined the team in 1998, it had become the Carolina Hurricanes.
I tracked down Gordon with the thought that talking to a former NHL owner might offer at least an idea of what is on their minds. The current crop of owners are not allowed to talk about the subject, otherwise they face a fine from the NHL.

No. 1: Who is lying and who is telling the truth?
Gordon:
Many years I ago, I met Bob Goodenow. I said, "You know, Bob, things aren't going well. We're not making any money and we have no chance." He said that was tough. That if you go out someone else will take it. That's your problem. That's Bob Goodenow's attitude. And you know what? That's when I sold. Bob Goodenow couldn't care less about anything. There is no question the owners are bleeding. I gave them all my books for crying out loud. When Peter Karmanos, who I'm not a big fan of, says the Hurricanes will lose less money not playing he is absolutely telling the truth.

No. 2: Why did you buy the Whalers and why did you sell?
Gordon:
I bought them because the league was stabilized, I like hockey, and I had an investment in downtown Hartford. There was a commonality of interest between players and owners. I sold them when I met Bob Goodenow. I was convinced he would destroy the league.

No. 3: Should Gary Bettman step down after this whole mess is cleaned up?
Gordon:
He doesn't play hockey. Whatever he says, I don't think it means anything. The issue is the owners. They need to come up with a plan that enables them to make a living and the players to make a living.

No. 4: Is there an economic scenario where the NHL could work in Hartford, Conn.?
Gordon:
Only on a subsidized basis and if you knew what your costs were. ESPN has control of its costs. Hockey has no control of its costs because costs are players' salaries. Goodenow says no one is putting a gun to the owners' heads to pay these salaries. Arbitration is an automatic gun. That's the thing that destroys the league as far as I can see.

No. 5: What's the most important economic chip the owners need to win in this negotiation?
Gordon:
The owners need certainty. They need to know what the hell their costs are going to be. They need to know how much salary they can allocate and how many players they are going to have, and then they can run a business. Hockey is perpetuating incompetence.

No. 6: How has the union changed from the late '80s to today?
Gordon:
There was a lot more trust. The players were happy and the owners were somewhat happy. Some were losing money, but not like today. There's got to be a balance. If you average 15,000 fans a night for 41 nights a year, that's 615,000 seats. If we average $40 a ticket, that's $24 million. You can make a bit more in parking, concessions, advertising, very little from radio, and a little from TV, but where else is the revenue? And think of the costs of all the other employees, chartering planes, booking hotels, and so on and it's obvious salaries are incredibly bloated.

No. 7: Are the owners really unified or is it a front?
Gordon:
If I were them, I would be unified -- unless you want to have six teams. The only question is trust. The issue is Goodenow has told all the players not to trust the owners. Perhaps, there needs to be one person both sides trust to eventually bring them together.

No. 8: What is your prediction on what will happen?
Gordon:
I don't think they will get the season in. I think the problem is going to be Goodenow is going to take it right to the wall. They did that in 1995. But I think now it is so severe and so much money is at stake that Goodenow has pushed them too far and the owners have no choice. It's very difficult to negotiate when you have no choice. It's simple math. You know how many seats are in the building. You know concessions. You know advertising. Everything is available. There are no hidden secrets.

Bucci --
I plan on spending most of tomorrow evening (what would have been opening night) going fetal and sucking my thumb.

Louis Brenton
Memphis, Tenn.

You can join Bob Goodenow and Gary Bettman at NHL Day Care.


John,
Do you think any of the teams will move in the next few years, and if so to what city?

Kevin Wyrauch Jr.

If a new CBA isn't revenue sharing and cap friendly then I don't see how Nashville and Pittsburgh survive. Since both teams have a good crop of young players, salary structure will be low and the talent pretty good. I see both being able to move into a place like Houston, where the corporate base and population is favorable. Imagine a Houston-Dallas hockey rivalry.


John,
Bring on the scabs!

Tim Sylte
Golden, Colo.

The Colorado Scabalanche?


John,
Does Kerry Fraser really have 24 kids? Enough of the obstruction/interference, perhaps he should just take the checking from behind penalty.

Steve D.
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Kerry and his wife actually have seven children, which, as we all know, is too many men on the ice.


John,
I'm making a cross-country road trip from my six-month internship/sabbatical out here in California back home to New York for the holidays. So far, I've got a list of the CDs that are a must for each state, but there are a couple of states where I'm drawing a blank and I was wondering if you could give me some input: Oklahoma and Arkansas are without CDs.

Jake Wegman
Palo Alto, Calif.

For Arkansas, I would go with the first two CDs by Blackhawk. Their self-titled debut and "Strong Enough." They sing one of my favorite sing along driving songs, "That's Just About Right." Money lyric: Your blue might be gray, your less might be more/Your window to the world might be your own front door/Your shiniest day might come in the middle of the night/That's just about right.

Oklahoma? Go Traveling Wilbury's and play "Dirty World" as loud as you can.


John,
George Steinbrenner has demonstrated a luxury tax is not synonymous with cost certainty by any means. Is there hope that hockey will be worth watching two years from now under any new system?

Bill Chrysler
Lynden, Wash.

Arbitration and entry-level contracts will be drastically altered. It will also be easier to buy players out, but they can't be released like in the NFL so we won't see that kind of player movement. Don't read much into players offering 5 percent of their salaries back, because the two sides understand that the season about 10 percent too long. The league will get stronger because it won't expand anymore, players are playing well longer, and great talent filters into the league every year. The NHL will just keep getting better.


John,
One question that I can't seem to answer is why a player such as Ryan Suter would turn professional and forego his college eligibility knowing that the lockout was likely to happen. Can you answer this for me?

Take care,
Mark C. Miller

He can play in the American Hockey League, get a taste of professional hockey and make a heck of a lot more money than most 19-year-olds. I don't know Ryan, but one of the biggest reasons athletes leave school early, in every sport, is the money - that and because they just don't want to go to class anymore. That's why Chris Bourque might leave BU and go play junior soon.


Hey John,
Welcome back! The new Jimmy Eat World CD "Futures" is incredible. It is the Kovalchuk of the fall listening.

Bring on the ECHL! Go Inferno!!
Bucky Wilson


Hey John,
Once hockey starts back up, do you think fans will flock back to the rink immediately or will it take time? I know if I wasn't a college student I would have season tickets for the Columbus Blue Jackets (don't let that fool you though, I'm an Avalanche fan to the core). And do you think that the league expanded too fast and that could have attributed to this work stoppage?

Josh Buergel

I do think fans will return pretty much right away because hockey is a great game and a fun time, and the core base is loyal and passionate. I don't think 24 U.S.-based NHL teams are too many. We have a country of almost 300 million people, as many rinks as Canada and as many players. Those numbers are only going to grow. And the talent pool from Europe will make the game strong as the Latin player has made baseball strong. Hockey is a young sport outside of the four cities that had teams for most of the 20th century.


John,
After reading your column one line stands out, "The NHL is healthy and has a bright future." Explain that to me. I would like to know how you missed the fact that hockey has disappeared. We no longer have 50-goal scorers, we have more injuries than ever before and ratings could not be worse. Why is that I wonder? Do you really think the fans are as devout as you make them sound? I don't. I think the fact the NHL had to PAY a network to broadcast the games is an indication hockey is in dire straights.

Steven Vickner

We don't have 50-goal scorers because interference is not called and the nets are too small. We have more injuries because the athletes are moving faster and play a much more reckless, exciting style, and the NHL plays too many games with little time for the body to recover. Ratings are down in every sport except for the NFL. There are 300 channels now. Plus, hockey isn't promoted by the league or major-media outlets. Yes, hockey fans are the most devout of any and they will be back. The NHL didn't pay any network. They are sharing the costs and profits for a handful of Saturday afternoon games and a few Stanley Cup finals games. That means NBC will promote the games -- and thus promote the sport - so it can make more money. They will show a 15-second promo during "ER" for an upcoming game that 20 million people will see. The NHL has never had that kind of vehicle before. Now the league should by a 30-second spot on the Super Bowl selling the game.


Hey John,
I've had enough with the talk about the labor dispute (except of course for the comedic quotes we get from the men in charge). Let's get down to some real business & baby names! My nephew will be born this December and my sister told me that they want to name him Beckham Parsons. I suggested contacting you so that we could spice up the soccer-themed name with a little hockey. What names would you suggest? And what do you think of the name Beckham as a first name? Grows on you, doesn't it?

Thanks,
Kevin Gugle

Beckham does grow on me -- like an unpronounceable green fungus on the end of my tongue. Beckham Parsons will assuredly mean a boorish, self-centered, naval gazing, poseur. Please, for the love of God, don't let this happen. I like Bradley Evan Parsons. Brad Parsons. Now you've got something.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.

John Buccigross | email

SportsCenter anchor
John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.