'Celebrity Mountain' beginning to crumble


SUVs, sex and steroids.

The professional athlete has always been a lesser sect of the celebrity cult, Joe DiMaggio and Joe Namath aside. In recent years, athletes seem to have closed the gap with the help of Hollywood, hip-hop and gargantuan salaries that have put athletes on an even spending field with musicians, actors and Paris Hilton. With their massive television exposure in the 300-channel universe and exploding wealth that has left their emotional attachment with their fans in the dust, athletes are now firmly entrenched in celebrity status and its pseudo-royalty ambience.

Celebrities have replaced politicians and poets as royalty. All that money, all those perks, all those SUVs, sex and steroids. I mean Tie Domi earns five times what President Bush makes. Most people would rather be Tie Domi. But like most royalty throughout man's civilized history, their wealth, sense of entitlement, arrogance and skewed view of reality bombard the general population. And that population will eventually and naturally revolt with indifference and apathy, settling into a mild, detached interest. Do the owners and players understand this pending radical change in the hearts and minds of their fans and what that means in terms of money and meaning?

NBA fans already revolted. There are about 14 of them left in the United States and three in downtown Toronto. Many baseball fans revolted after the World Series was canceled in 1994, and the latest steroid scandal may make the game revolting for a few more.

NFL fans have not revolted en masse because eight regular-season home games a year and a huge television contract makes tickets more affordable. NFL contracts are NOT guaranteed, thus there is no such thing as a lazy NFL player. They would be cut in five minutes. Football players play all out all the time. However, celebrations after every play leave a revolting taste in my mouth. I like end-zone celebrations. I've enjoyed every one of Terrell Owens' performances. Like goals, it's hard to score touchdowns and they cause a burst of excitement. I'm a celebration voyeur. I like watching people enjoy life. But celebrations after sacks, 3-yard gains and first down receptions have taken much of the joy out of the NFL for me. Actually, it makes me angry and turns me into a casual NFL observer.

Can you imagine a player in the NHL dancing after a hard body check? I know the opinions of NHL players is low right now -- and it would benefit Bill Guerin and his associations if he didn't say things like he'd rather see the demise of the NHL than play under a salary cap. But in terms of game behavior, hockey and baseball seem to be the last sports with some sort of behavior code -- the bean ball and brush back in baseball and fighting in hockey. Those are reasons why my skin is so thick when baseball and hockey have "issues." I am so in love with those games my love is puppy dog unconditional.

Back to the revolution.

SUVs, sex, and steroids are turning off some sports fans and you have to wonder if a century of arrogance is beginning to crumble Celebrity Mountain.

• SUVs: The wealth on planet celebrity is mind-boggling. This is about a 20-25 year phenomenon in professional sports and about a 10-year phenomenon in the NHL. Athletes always made more money than the average worker, but now it is so out of proportion that it makes a close relationship nearly impossible. The average salary in the U.S. is about $40,000 a year. Your average NHL player makes 45 times that amount. That's right, 45. This wasn't the case in 1988. The average working salary was $30,000. The average NHL salary was just less than seven times more, at $200,000. You could relate to the players. They lived and thought much like the fan did. You felt like you were rooting for your neighbor or friend. Today, hockey players think and live completely different lives than their fan base. That shows in comments from Bill Guerin and Brett Hull, to name two. Fans, common fellow Americans and Canadians, cannot comprehend the thought process of millionaires who play a game, get summers off and are paid by the money fans PAY to watch. Fans are getting further away from the ice -- literally and figuratively -- and the game has suffered for it. It's not Gary Bettmen or Bob Goodenow who has taken most of the personality and connection out of the game. It's the big rinks and the big salaries. It's hard to invest heartfelt emotion in rich people one perceives as arrogant.

• Sex: Hockey players have hot wives, hot girlfriends and in some instances, both. When you see these women it takes you right back to high school and that painful feeling in your stomach that says, "They will never even talk to me." Hockey was better when the wives were uglier. We could relate better. With their income, youth and exposure athletes and hockey players and other athlete/celebrities have no problem picking up women. Unless you're Denny Naegle or Hugh Grant. This upsets Joe Six-Pack and infuriates Joe Twelve-Pack.

• Steroids: Steroids is flat-out cheating. Athletes driving $90,000 SUVs with their 6-foot blonde girlfriend is discouraging enough for sports fans. Throw cheating in the mix and what's left to root for? When heads, upper backs, and quads get implausibly big, you know someone is juiced. I've only heard of one NHL player who even had steroid whispers surrounding him and he was a defensive defenseman. Admitted or uncovered steroid use also makes the fans "interpersonal" relationship with players weaker and weaker. It makes them inhuman, unethical and criminal.

Yes, there is a simmering revolution bubbling under the skin of sports fans. We saw it burst in the NBA in the Pacer-Piston brawl. People taking shots at Ron Artest were taking shots at, in their view, his disrespect for the game. Baseball fans are enjoying labor peace, but it is still reserved knowing what has happened in the past and what will likely happen someday again. The NFL appears to be stress-free in terms of labor woes, primarily because they have had unified owners and strong commissioners. Once NHL players realize and are convinced the owners are unified and the commissioner is determined to show a born again strength, they better relent fast. Otherwise, they will lose and lose big.

The NHL and the NHLPA will meet this week in Toronto. As we told you last month, this will be the player's best offer to date. The owners will look at it and either refuse it on the spot, or tweak it to their liking. The players will get it back and we will know real quickly if there is a season. If the season will be canceled, I think it will be called late this week or early next week. If they are still talking over the weekend, it means common ground will be achieved.

But TLC is way more important than the new CBA. Professional sports is a bubble that is close to bursting. The NHL is most vulnerable because of a paltry television contract. The players and the league need to understand the Fan Revolution and make DRASTIC changes in their marketing, fan relations and on-ice rules.

The fan is getting farther AND further away from the game. And you get the sense both sides are drastically underestimating that fact and, to make matters worse, don't seem to really care.

The American Hockey League is flying this year. The league is focused, proactive and flourishing. Under the leadership of commissioner Dave Andrews, the AHL is setting a fine example for the NHL, once play continues there. I talked with Dave to see what is going on in North America's finest, active hockey league.

No. 1: What is the state of the AHL?
It's probably as strong as it has ever been in terms of our long-term stability. We are at 28 teams at the moment and committed to 30 teams next year, with the addition of the team in Iowa and the activation of Calgary's team, with that frontrunner being Omaha, Neb. From an attendance point of view, we are on track for a record season and we should be approaching seven million fans by the time we finish our playoffs. The one cloud over our head and the entire industry is the state of the labor situation in the NHL

No. 2: Any expansion plans?
Our strategic plan has always been to match up the number of active AHL teams with number of NHL franchises.

No. 3: How has the NHL work stoppage affected your business?
We have prepared for this for 14 months. More than 90 percent of the players in the AHL are on NHL contracts. I made my top priority to meet with NHL GMs and AHL owners to see what each affiliation agreement was and to make sure there was a commitment to player supply by the NHL. As it's turned out, no only do we have a player supply, but our player supply is stronger than normal. Our attendance is up 8 percent across the board, most of that in NHL markets. We've had great success in Edmonton, Philadelphia and Chicago and we've played games in NHL cities that don't have AHL teams. We are collecting rights fees for TV games where we didn't in the past. We have a contract with Leafs TV in Canada and we have a contract to televise games in the U.K.

No. 4: When we hear, on more than one occasion, that the WHA is close to returning what impact does it have in your AHL offices?
Virtually none to be honest. Looking at media coverage of the WHA and the economic model that it was proposing at the time, having worked in this business for most of my life, the model didn't look as though it would be very attractive to investors. There weren't a lot of arena leases available for the WHA and, secondly, the model itself would require a tremendous leap of faith from investors.

No. 5: A couple weeks ago I wrote how I loved your rules changes and the goalie crease behind the net to limit goalie puck handling that you were testing. I see you have chosen to keep the crease for the full season. Do I have a larger voice in the hockey world that I wasn't aware of?
You must have influenced our board members! We felt that it has worked well. Our hockey operations staff has talked to goalies, players, coaches and players and we found the goalies were comfortable with it and it was generating some offensive opportunities that weren't normally happening last year, and I think in a subtle way it's helped to break the trap a little bit. If you have a chance to successfully dump the puck and create a battle, it does tend to back the defense off the blue line a little bit and open up the neutral zone. We saw no downside from it.

No. 6: If Gary Bettman came to you and asked, "Dave, should the NHL use a shootout?" what would you tell him?
That's a difficult question. I'm not certain. Fan feedback has been very positive. Coach feedback has not been so positive. There has been an electric feeling in our buildings for the shootouts. Everything else in our rule package I would recommend. Our scoring is up a little bit, but the flow has drastically increased.

No. 7: Is there one rule that really standouts as having the greatest impact?
The tag up offside rule bringing more flow into the game, making it less static and bringing more forecheck into the game. One that is more subtle is moving the goal nets closer to the boards. Our goalies feel that change has had more impact on them than the restricted area behind the net. They are saying the puck is coming out more quickly and more plays are being made behind them.

No. 8: What is the plan for the AHL to continue to thrive and grow?
Our future will be quite prosperous as long as the NHL has its house in order. Once the new CBA is in place it should help the AHL. I think there will be a continued premium on player development, which is the service that this league provides (the NHL) and that helps make our economics work. We've have grown and strengthened ourselves in a number of regions. We have a very strong presence in Canada now. We probably need to communicate as effectively as we can what a good league this is and try to strengthen our fan base.

A very sad and unfortunate event took place last week. My good friend Mike passed away following an accidental fall he had suffered the previous Wednesday. He was 39 years old. Mike and I were good friends for many years, and a bunch of my fondest memories with him involve hockey, especially attending Avalanche games. Hockey is such an experience. The energy, the vibe, the sounds of the ice and puck. We would be so amped when a goal was scored or a great save was made, even by an opposing goalie. I remember an unbelievable performance by Nikolai Khabibulin when he was a Coyote that we saw together. When I think about those experiences, a flood of emotions and feelings come back to me. It's funny; I don't remember how much a ticket cost, or how much I paid for a beer. It's the soul of the game that matters, and what will be the most lasting tradition of all.

Joe Benvegnu

I was born in Vancouver, played hockey growing up, and like most Canadians, I feel that hockey is the greatest sport around. Fast forward to the present. I am in my final year of Medical School in N.Y., have been in the U.S. for almost 10 years and dearly miss the amount of respect the game gets up in Canada. I am a firm believer that the media can easily influence popular opinion in regards to sports.

Josh Remick

I believe in your last statement, Josh. But maybe a better word than influencing popular opinion is fanning the flames. Remember you can love the game in Guam. Here in the U.S., you can buy the NHL Center Ice package, subscribe to The Hockey News, watch ESPN2's exclusive games, and read ESPN.com and that is certainly more than adequate. I don't need mass appeal for my sport to validate my interest or its value to me. In fact, I prefer it.

Due to the current labor difficulties surrounding the sport, I have decided to take my loss of hockey into my own hands and do something that I never have done before: actually play hockey. Hockey is my greatest passion in life (which, thankfully, my girlfriend is quite tolerant of), yet I've never played. So my question to you is, what's the single most important piece of advice you can give me, other than "wear a cup?"

Dave Orduz
Evanston, Ill.

Make sure your skates are not too big. Do lots of squats and sit-ups while you watch TV and use a 10-pound medicine ball as you do those exercises. Buy roller blades with a hockey skate boot for supplement skating in the summer. When you skate, bend your knees and get your butt as close to the ice as you can. When you are done, shower and moisturize.

Speaking of old Boston Bruins names, how about Nevin Markwart, Luc Dufour or Moe Lemay?

Jamie Rendfeld

When the Bruins broke their curse and beat the Montreal Canadiens in the 1988 Adams Division final, the first player who hugged goaltender Reggie Lemelin after his patented helmet-off, genuflecting fist pump was No. 36 ... Moe Lemay.

Well, I have the solution. I have been using this technique for years and it always results in an easily opened CD case. Here's what you do:

1) Find the side of the CD where the "hinges" are to open and close the CD (if looking at the cover the correct way, this is typically on the left side);

2) Hold the spine of the CD with the fingers on your left hand (the spine is the part between the hinges);

3) Put your right fingernail, right thumbnail, or other thin object under the hinge on the opposite side of the dreaded adhesive tape;

4) Lift whatever you have under the hinge up and then toward the front of the CD case;

5) Now you have successfully (hopefully) removed the front of the CD and can easily peal away the dreaded tape.

Enjoy! If you need more clarification, please let me know.
Tom C. in SF

As the lockout lingers, I have realized that I don't miss NHL hockey, I just miss hockey. After the local channels woke up and started televising college games on a regular basis, and I've gone to see a few Hockey East matchups in town, I find myself caring less and less about the NHL. Of course, this will change in April if there is no season, but for now I'm getting my fix.

John Quill
Norwell, Mass.

I've watched a lot of college hockey as well, but there is no comparison between NHL hockey and college hockey. I love the game, but the level of speed, skill and excitement is far superior in the NHL. In person, I'd prefer a BU-BC or Minnesota-Michigan matchup because the smaller rink is a better atmosphere for hockey. The NHL and NBA devalued their product from an artistic sense when they built these large, evil arenas.

In your column today you mentioned your third favorite quote. What are Nos. 1 and 2?

Mike Wohl

"Chance furnishes me with what I need. I am like a man who stumbles along; my foot strikes something, I bend over and it is exactly what I want."

-- James Joyce

"Pass the Beer Nuts."
-- Norm Peterson

I recommend Zakk Wylde's cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold". Gritty, soulful, and angry. Also, if you're going to be stuck in your car while on Route 8, try the new (as of September) Social Distortion disc "Sex, Love, and Rock & Roll." It has everything today's "punk" lacks.

John Muir
Trumbull, Conn.

Hi John,
In response to your comment/question . . . "Is there ANYTHING better on the web than Mapquest? Name anything else that has made life easier and costs nothing." I have the answer to that: SpareGoalies.com (free for goalies to list their profiles and free for teams to search for goalies). Because there is only one thing worse than being lost and not having a map . . . playing hockey without a goalie!

Darrell Barr
Steveston, British Columbia

Darren Pang will play goal for food.

I will say it to you, and to anyone who is willing to listen: As a season-ticket holder of the New York Islanders, after this lockout is done I will not be back. I will never attend an NHL game again. I will only root as a die-hard fan from TV.

POed on Long Island,
Brad Weiner

I hear you and feel you Brad, but I'll be back. I love the game. Going throughout the day looking forward to 7 p.m. and the first batch of NHL games on the Center Ice Package is a feeling I miss. It's why I love baseball. It's an every day game. Since I love all 30 teams equally, I have that day-long anticipation, all day, every day. And I miss that.

The new U2 sucks, I mean really sucks. They have not put out a good tune since "Joshua Tree," that's my opinion. Also, since I hear "uno, dos, tres, quatorce" every two minutes, I should point out that it translates to "one, two, three, fourteen." It's time for this U2 to crash somewhere in the coldest, darkest part of Russia. Thanks for the time.

Mike Garvin
Manchester, N.H.

I don't choose the music that goes in my CD players. It chooses me. Right now, the new U2 is dominating my car CD, and their "Unforgettable Fire" is firmly entrenched in my Bose Wave Radio in the bedroom.

This strike has left me like Radiohead's classic song, "High and Dry". Being from Texas and now living in California, there is no other game I love than hockey. Since I arrived in L.A. five years ago, I've only missed one game of my beloved Dallas Stars, when they play Kings, here in LA. I would give anything to see Jere Lehtinen slice through a defense and receive a perfect pass from Mike Modano and go top shelf. A quick side note: I ran into Jere last year on the famed 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica. I had a very nice chat with him. No one else recognized him, but I was in utter awe.

Ron G.

Santa Monica, Calif.

Another reason to love NHL hockey and its small community. You had that moment all to yourself. Didn't have to share it with anybody.

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