Children untainted by CBA mess

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

Kids don't care about lockouts.

Kids don't care about cost certainty, how many cars Peter Nedved can buy, Bill Wirtz's devaluation of a franchise, owners who don't know what a saucer pass is, or proud negotiators who can't honestly look at a situation and apply Christmas blessings of hope, peace and renewal, and simply get a deal done instead of indulging themselves in the art and love of negotiating.

Honest and open relationships are the strongest and most prosperous, and when both sides of a negotiation have that kind of relationship (and a realistic view of themselves) then a basis of understanding is reached.

From there, a negotiation is based on leverage. Who has it and how do they use it? Right now, the owners have the leverage because of the obvious economic and artistic conditions of the game, which no one can debate, and because of the fans' attitude toward the players, which is at an all-time low across the professional athletic landscape. That's just reality, deserved or not. I think the players understand the owners have the leverage here. It's the owners' charge to use that leverage responsibly and ethically, not like a bullying, arrogant businessman. The problem here is a lot of NHL owners are arrogant businessmen.

LOCKOUT LIP
PLAYER'S NAME "I am convinced that there will not be a season. Simply put, it's not one minute left before midnight -- it is midnight. We will meet another time, but not to prepare a new proposal."

-- Colorado Avalanche center Vincent Damphousse to La Presse
Yet all of this is white noise to a hockey child. His world is Todd McFarlane figurines, disfigured beyond recognition from overuse. His world is peewee practice on Monday and Thursday nights or in-house games on Sunday mornings. And sometimes his world also is twirls on the backyard rink on Christmas. A Wayne Gretzky action figure, whether the 18-inch Edmonton Oilers variety or a McFarlane Los Angeles Kings model still brings gasps of joy Christmas morning.

This is why Wayne and Mario are not involved in this CBA negotiation yet. This process stains people, and there is nothing Mario and Wayne can gain from it or really offer. There is no sentiment or warmth in negotiations. The only way Wayne and Mario will come into the picture would be for an 11th-hour pitch to the players that the owners' final offer is their best offer and, in their humble opinions, one the players should accept. That is quite a closer to bring to the table and would have a gigantic P.R. and player effect.

School, Halloween, weeknight practice and weekend games, Thanksgiving and now the Christmas holiday break have numbed the pain of the NHL lockout for kids. But as the New Year arrives and the long, cold winter sets in, the children will start to notice. This is hockey's time. And right now, the game at the highest level is frozen stiff. While the Internet coverage on the lockout has been thorough and daily, newspaper and television coverage in the United States has been woefully lacking and incomplete. Five year olds don't read, but those who are used to the backdrop of televised NHL hockey in the home, know that the games are on hold, that Joe Sakic's legendary wrist shot is in the freezer, that Markus Naslund's style and grace is frozen in time, that Ilya Kovachuck's breathtaking acceleration is on display only in ice-cold Russia.

Say what you want about the current state of the NHL game on the ice, the destructive force of this lockout and the public comments of the negotiators, the NHL is hockey at its highest level. It's the Sports Illustrated of swimsuit magazines. It's Tom Hanks, TiVo, Starbursts, iPods, Tim Russert, movie theater popcorn, Pebble Beach, and the chicken parm at DaVinci's in Bristol, Conn. The best.

Nowhere will you witness the acceleration of Kovalchuk, the shot of Sakic, the amazing stickhandling of Martin St. Louis as he approaches a helpless defenseman, the electric and effortless skating of Scott Niedermayer or the classic passing of Nicklas Lidstrom. Watch all the college, junior and AHL hockey you want and you will not see the talents of these men, even despite the prehistoric and Neanderthal set of rules under which they play. The best the game has to offer is shelved and the game suffers for it. Yes, it continues at your local rink, and in the stench of your son's or daughter's hockey bag, and at your local university, and local American league or junior team. But the game, at its highest artistic level, is in storage. When that happens, reaching for the best inside one is hard when the best cannot be seen.

I'm not worried about the hockey kids during this lockout. Kids are forgiving and resilient. They have NHL 2K5, "Miracle" on DVD, a Mario Lemieux McFarlane toy on the dresser, itty-bitty Lego hockey players on the itty-bitty table, and mini-sticks strewn in the family room. They love the game unconditionally and all the joys and exhilarations it brings them. They are the core and the future of this game of fun. Don't worry about them. Worry about the grownups.

And when you say Bob Goodenow and Gary Bettman are acting like hockey children in this CBA cold war, easy, Sparky. You are giving them a compliment they don't deserve.

John,
Why is it every time I see Bettman's or Goodenow's picture is on espn.com, I want to punch my computer screen?

Bryan Hall
Kansas City, Mo.

You are angry, frustrated and emotional. We all are. Hockey is a blood sport and when you play it or watch it, it brings out the wide spectrum of human emotions. The hockey fan is getting face-washed by the powers that be and it stinks like Norm Maracle's goalie equipment. But there is still time, and neither side has made its best offer.


John,
Just last March, I went to my first pro NHL game, Detroit at Phoenix. It was the most fun I've ever had at any pro event. I've been to NFL games, MLB games and NBA games, and they're just not the same. The greatest sport hands down! I live in El Paso, Texas, and even my girlfriend, who didn't grow up with hockey, tells me she misses the sport. So, all in all, we need hockey.

Gabriel Buentello
El Paso, Texas

I love e-mails like this. I get so angry when American and Canadian media members say people don't care or even know there is a lockout. I get hundreds of e-mails like this every week, from all corners of the country.


Bucci:
I need to correct some misinformation submitted by a reader in your Dec. 20 e-mail bag regarding pro hockey in Japan. It's true there are only four pro teams remaining in Japan, but ...

The Asian Hockey League has begun its inaugural season with eight teams made up of four teams from Japan (Nikko Ice Bucks, Nippon Paper Cranes, Oji Paper and Kokudo Tokyo), two teams from China (Harbin and Qiqihar) and one each from Korea (Halla Winia) and Russia (Amur, from Khabarovsk). Former NHLer Esa Tikkanen is a playing coach for the Korean team.

Also, I was watching the Worldstars playing in Russia on TV last week. My Japanese mother-in-law, a soccer fan, was watching hockey for the first time ever. Within two minutes she had figured out one of the current problems in the game when she said, "Isn't it hard to score when the goal is so small and the 'keeper is so big?" Though I don't agree with your idea of increasing the size of the goal, I do like most of the "new" rules being implemented in the AHL -- including the shootout. I am a traditionalist, but the shootout is a compromise we traditionalist are going to have to make.

Brent "Killer" Carlson Tokyo

Every hockey game I now watch on TV, the first thing that jumps out at me is THE NET IS TOO SMALL. I'm an old school, traditionalist, homebody, Midwestern grown boy. Change is something that doesn't come easy for me, yet I'm CONVINCED the net is too small for today's game. College and NHL.


Hey Bucci...
I saw your buddy Shjon Podein play at a charity game in Minneapolis this weekend. Attendance was beyond pitiful. The local NHLers who organized the game seemed a little upset about this. Perhaps the fans are unhappy with the players and the state of the game right now? Think about that, NHLPA: When hockey fans in Minnesota won't pay 10 bucks to watch NHLers play, you're in trouble.

The NHLPA and the players are losing the P.R. war, and badly. If you won't accept less than the millions of dollars you're currently being paid to play hockey, then step aside. There are plenty of guys who will gladly take your place.

Happy Holidays,
Courtney
Minneapolis, Minn.

For the record, I am completely anti-replacement player.


John,
The owner's position is a slam dunk. They can install their salary cap by September, recruit the best young players in the world (do you think the best college and junior kids in North America won't cross a picket line for $1.3 mill/yr?) and in three years have a rebuilt, highly profitable league. In six years, they'll have a new generation of stars and these other guys will have been forgotten. And that's the owner's worst-case scenario. The best case is the current stars come back next fall for want of a paycheck. Taking all of the emotion out of the issue, as a smart investor would, the business case for a salary cap in order to rebuild the league is just too strong.

T Moureau


Bucci,
Enough about this lockout stuff. It's getting quite redundant and I move for a lighter, more fun issue. I've been reading your column for a few years now, and there is one thing in particular I really miss -- where, oh where, have all the "Pangerisms" run off to? Something about "What a Pangled web we weave" has been implanted in my thoughts for a long time now.

Keep up the great articles,
SrA S. Alexander Darwin
USAF
Bolling AFB, D.C.

During this frustrating lockout, Darren has begun his NBA career in Chicago for the Bulls. He's off to a good start in the NBA averaging 13.5 points a game. You've seen him: Luol Pang.


John,
I'm not so sure of your claim that teams will be able to keep more of their good players under a cap system. Under a cap system, teams like Ottawa and Tampa could lose their homegrown talent due to cap restrictions. What's John Muckler to do when Alfredsson, Hossa, Chara, and Redden's contracts are all due for renewal in the same year? There's no way they fit them all in under the cap, and they're forced to trade a player or two. The team that develops players smartly is actually punished for doing so. Am I missing something here?

Nick
Montreal

When a team has a boatload of players, yes, in some instances they may lose a player or two. But look at the New England Patriots in the NFL. They have players who love the atmosphere and play for the love of the game, and they take less to stay in New England. They figure they are already incredibly paid, why not take a little less to stay in a place you love to live and play and are comfortable?


John,
To impose a salary cap on anyone is completely un-American and shameful at best. If the owners can't stand the heat, then they should get out of the fire and let someone else in that has a pair. I'm tired of hearing these guys crying about a situation they created and expect someone else to fix. What a pathetic bunch. If I ran my business the way they ran their teams my family would starve, and you know what? It would be ALL my fault.

Sincerely,
Matt Seward


John,
I spent two years living in an African village in Senegal and biked 30k into town hoping to finally get videotapes of Flyers games my brother had mailed to me. I got about six total, and took them to a flophouse in the capital -- a 30k bike ride, followed by a horrible 5-hour car ride, followed by another unbearable 12-hour car ride (think half-paved dirt roads with potholes elephants could fall into) -- where I could fight other volunteers for VCR time to watch those tapes over and over again. Worth it.

ONCE, I was lucky enough to find a TV and working VCR in a new restaurant inside the town closest to me. Some American friends and I persuaded the bartender to let us watch the game. We had a bar-full of African's who'd NEVER even heard of the game (let alone seen a rink, a puck, a hockey stick, or a pond of ice) watching it with us, trying to follow the action.

At one point in the game, a certain Jeremy Roenick unleashed this vicious check and sent somebody into the boards and sprawled on the ice. The entire place erupted. It was special and showed me that a good check is a good check, no matter who sees it, and that hockey can be universal.

Johnny D
Kailua, Hawaii


John,
Ordinarily I don't bother to write into stuff, although I do read your column regularly. This is too weird not to say something.

I got into hockey because of a girl! Way back in 1986, I had this huge crush on a girl who sat next to me in science class. Her family had Flyers season tickets and she was a pretty serious fan. So, because I liked her, I of course had to be a Flyers fan and all. I believe her favorite player was Ilka "Boxcar" Sinisalo, if my memory serves. I never did have the stones to ask her out (besides, I was a big dork so she probably wouldn't have been interested anyway). Eventually I moved away and never saw her again. The love of hockey, however, stuck, and despite having lived in Florida and currently Pittsburgh, I am still a big Flyers fan.

Here's the weird part. I never saw that girl again. But . . . I think she actually wrote in to your column this week. Judging by her story, as well as what I think her married name is, somehow I think "Jen Canning, Shady Side, Md." used to be "Jenny Romano, Cherry Hill, NJ, Beck Middle School 1986?"

Hockey connects us all in weird ways, huh.

John Santore
Pittsburgh, Pa.
Formerly Cherry Hill, N.J.
Beck Middle School 1986


John,
If you commit your heart and soul to the game, you will be rewarded. This is not disputable. This is not opinion.

This is fact.

It can be confirmed by reading Raymond Bourque's name on Lord Stanley's Cup.

It can be confirmed by listening to Travis Roy speak about how he wouldn't trade those few seconds of ice time for a lifetime of walking.

It is a game of ultimate justice. Sportsmanship is expected, no... demanded. You will fight as hard as you can for three periods, then shake hands and congratulate your foe, win or lose. If you take a cheap shot on a lesser opponent, expect to receive an equal treatment.

Lapses in sportsmanship are not tolerated. You will play hard, but within reason. This is a lesson that is too often forgotten in society.

So, why am I a fan? Why am I supposedly a Hall of Fame fan? I am a fan because I want life to be more like hockey. I want to get out of my job what I put into it. I want sportsmanship to be the rule, not the oddity it has become. I want heart to count for something. For anything.

I am a hockey fan because it makes me a better person.

There is stick.

There is puck.

There is net.

Game on.

Allen Forkner

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.