'Tis the season of giving, not taking

Originally Published: December 20, 2004
By John Buccigross | Special to ESPN.com

I still believe.

I still believe the NHL and the NHLPA will not damage their product, sacrifice their salaries and livelihood and devalue their franchises by canceling this season. I believe that, between now and the first week of January, a complete agreement can and will be reached that includes fewer games, simple yet significant rule adaptations and an economic system based on partnership and trust.

After all, it's the season of giving and receiving. Not giving and taking. Giving and receiving.

LOCKOUT LIP
''I have been in this league since 1966, 38 years I've been involved in the league, and I've never seen the owners so solidly together as they are today. They are as solid as a rock."

-- Philadelphia Flyers chairman Ed Snider
When you enter any kind of debate forum -- religious, political or economic -- you have to argue from the other person's point of view. If you're having a debate on Islam, you have to argue from the point of view of the Koran. If you argue George Bush is a bad president, you argue from a standpoint of a Republican. And if you debate the pluses and minuses of affirmative action, you debate based on both points of view.

Gary Bettman needs to negotiate a new CBA from the players' point of view, and Bob Goodenow needs to negotiate from the owners' point of view. Right now, both Bettman and Goodenow are on their stools and in their corners as their constituents are sponging them off, squirting water in their mouths and urging them to keep on fighting.

Gary Bettman: Bettman has done an excellent job controlling his owners, staying calm and keeping his message simple and clear. He seems very relaxed in these severely tense times. That is a sign of strength. For his side's sake he needs to keep that demeanor without appearing arrogant. He needs to reach out to the players, attempt to bring some personable and popular owners to the negotiating rooms and explain the owners' position in simple terms.

He needs to negotiate from the players' point of view and assure them their wealth will continue and freedom will grow. He needs to realize that combative talk will only cause the players to pull together more. Bettman's public and private tone with the players needs to be very calm and as warm as possible. The players are at their most vulnerable now, and they need to be reasoned with.

Crank down the age for unrestricted free agency, offer more of a playoff share for players, sell them on the aggressive marketing campaigns you have planned and remind them how important they are and how much their values of courage, passion, commitment and likeability are appreciated and not marketed enough. The cap or an extremely severe luxury tax is coming. The NHL has to convince the players why, what's in it for them and what they can gain in this process.

Bob Goodenow: The players have yet to give their best deal. What is their best deal? They will pull back the 24 percent salary rollback number to 13 to 18 percent and bring their luxury/payroll tax down to 40 million with 90 to 100 percent tax rates before they give in to a cap-like system. I wonder, if the NHLPA decides to accept a cap, what they would ask for in return? Unrestricted free agency with no age restriction like the NFL and NBA? Fewer games, more and creative marketing of the players and a longer All-Star break?

Goodenow will likely begin to argue how much the players should get in return for relenting on a cap-like scenario. After fighting for so long and then giving in, Goodenow would have tons of room to get the players what they need, which -- when you think about it -- isn't much. NHL players have great lives. The one area the players can demand a quid pro quo situation is freedom of movement at a much younger age, to lower the age for unrestricted free agency drastically. Goodenow can attempt to convince owners that tying up younger players in this situation will give them more bang for the buck and minimize the bad contracts they give to players past their primes. Businesspeople like output when they make investments and investing in younger players instead of older ones will make them look smarter.

I just got done filling the backyard rink with water, and Jack scored his first career in-house hockey goal at the age of 5 on Sunday morning, yet it still doesn't feel like hockey season. It's now apparent the anger and resentment of a cancelled season would scar and cheapen every active player and franchise. The stakes are enormously high and the season calls for giving, receiving, caring and protecting a league, its franchises and the players.

John,
The game is flat-out boring these days, and that's a cardinal sin in the entertainment world. There's been so little offense and creativity in the league for the last 10 years; I imagine goal scoring is barely down from last season. We all know how the country responded when baseball went away, football would be just as bad and even the NBA and NASCAR would be missed. You ask someone random on the street to name a great NBA player and you'll get Shaq and Kobe and Iverson. Ask for an NHL star and you'll get blank stares. That's the problem with the league, and that's why no one cares. Even me, and that's hard to stomach.

Sincerely,
Chris Perkel

The NHL understands this sentiment and is ready to launch an all-out reinvention campaign. The NHL is prepared to lay out a new logo and new rules and has a new TV deal that will involve high definition and hopefully innovative production tools. There are still too many stodgy GMs and board of governors members around the NHL, but they are slowly being weeded out, and hopefully the revolution will be able to reach full bloom.


John,
The dreaded frayed lace. Is there anything worse?

Dan Deuel
Shoreview, Minn.

The dreaded frayed ear.


John,
At 11 years old, he plays the sport four to five times a week, his bedroom is a shrine to the sport and his Devils and he has remained true to the sport, even in this trying time. He doesn't fully understand the issues, and I am glad he does not.

The players need to realize they need every 11-year-old as a fan, and they must, once they are back, cater to that very core of what's left of the fan base.

On the owners' side, they better get cracking on fan development and a little less on corporate seats that are usually empty each night.

For now we enjoy the fun play of the Trenton Titans, and the ECHL ... until the NHL decides to get on with their game.

Thanks.

Tom Derr
Thomas F. Derr


John,
When this CBA nonsense is over (this season, next season, whenever), both sides will still be faced with a sobering reality: the average sports fan thinks hockey is all about violence. They might not understand what icing is, but they know a fight when they see one. Growing the fan base (and the value of franchises) will require that the league address this issue. While hockey "purists" might scoff at automatic suspensions for fighting, better policing of obstruction and penalties for finishing off checks two seconds late, the result would be a game that really flows and attracts more fans.

Gary Skiba
Danbury, CT

Let's hope lower ticket prices are a part of the equation.


John,
You may want to caution Shjon Podein about buying that Japanese team. Last I checked, the league had shrunk to four teams because of economic problems.

Sad to say, but hockey is virtually an unknown sport in Japan, and even a hit TV series about hockey last winter, with some of Japan's biggest stars, hasn't done much to spark interest in the sport.

The other thing is, if Shjon becomes the owner, the language will be a big problem, but the culture will be a bigger one; the whole mentality of workers and athletes here is different than in North America. If buying this team would mean putting his own financial security at risk, please advise him against it.

Regards
Jesse Sokolovsky


John,
How can the league/owners say that salaries will ultimately get out of control again when they're the ones controlling them in the first place? Sounds to me like the owners have no self-control over how much they ultimately spend on player contracts, so a salary cap is more of a control mechanism for them rather than one for the players and their agents.

Bill LaViolette
Houston, Texas

It's more complicated than that. An owner in New York or Detroit can afford any player. To ensure a player signs, these teams can overpay. But overpaying doesn't mean anything to them because they have massive revenue streams. The players argue that teams won't be able to keep players in a salary cap system. More good players will stay on the same teams longer in a cap/revenue sharing system. Fewer and fewer players will play with one team for their entire career in every sport because players play so long nowadays. Pedro Martinez is one of the greatest pitchers of all time, and he has played for four teams now. Baseball has no salary cap.


John,
If the owners decided to comply with a "self-imposed salary structure" without an official salary cap negotiated into the CBA, isn't that just opening the door to collusion claims from the NHLPA? The players say that owners should control costs, that it is their responsibility to control costs, but the first time a major free agent isn't signed to a monster deal, the players are going to scream that the owners are ganging up and working together to keep the salaries down. The very definition of collusion.

It seems to me, from a disgruntled hockey fan who misses his sport very much, that the players are setting the stage to tell the owners that they can fix the problem, only to take them to court when they try to.

Michael J. Tunney
New York, NY

Do NHL players realize they will still be incredibly wealthy and have a utopian and enviable lifestyle with a salary cap? Or is Goodenow reading the boys Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" in a big circle?


John,
When my Devils won the Cup in '95, lower bowl seats were $42. Last season they were $90 -- a 214 percent increase. Hockey used to be a "blue collar" fan sport. Now that the "average Joe" is being priced out of the market, who will replace them? Weenies who get free tickets from their jobs, who arrive in the middle of the first period and leave in the middle of the third, who don't make any noise except to ask people around them what icing or boarding is. These are the people who don't care that the NHL isn't playing right now. Meanwhile the true fan suffers. I would never expect the owners to care about anything but money. But shame on the players for forgetting who made them rich and famous in the first place. So I say, bring on the replacement players -- maybe they'll have a little more gratitude and respect for the fact that they get to play a game for a living and don't have to unload trucks or fix leaky pipes or lose an arm or a leg or a life in Iraq.

Jeff Jonas
Clifton, NJ


John,
This past weekend my wife came out and flat-out asked me what was going on and also added, "They need to get it fixed, I'm sick of watching football all the time. I'd rather watch hockey. I miss it"

Mike Morton
Garden City, Mich.

Get her a $100 spa gift certificate right now.


Dear Brendan Shanahan,
I recently read in John Buccigross' column that you don't feel the guys are being missed. Well, I'll tell you what I miss. I miss the smell of the ice when I walk into an arena. I miss the pregame skate. I miss Mario Lemeuix working the side boards on a power play. I miss a 2-1 final. I miss the Zamboni and the organ between periods. I miss a top-shelf bullet. I miss a glove save on a top-shelf bullet. I miss Pittsburgh-Philly, Boston-Montreal, Detroit-Colorado. I miss a guy who went off injured in the second stepping back on the ice to start the third. I miss following who might win the Art Ross. I miss hockey on ESPN (I don't miss hockey on Fox, however). I miss running home from work to change before heading to Mellon Arena. I miss watching the Wings on TV, because I admire Brendan Shanahan as a player. I miss the NHL.

Jeff Yot
Pittsburgh PA


John,
Quit being optimistic.

Erica B.
Richmond, VA

No. We'll play. Happy Holidays.

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.