There is no quick fix for this sport

Updated: July 19, 2005, 9:01 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

Now comes the fun part -- listening to people who can "fix" hockey.

In fact, hockey has been fixed, in that veterinarian sort of way. It has been stripped of even its mild import in the bigger sporting picture, saddled as it is with a distrustful public, a scornful media, and a television deal that comes straight from Cable Access Channel Z.

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But since this lockout was all about 10 or so hard-line owners and their unleashed commissioner getting what they wanted at all costs, hats off to them. Preferably with their heads inside, true, but you get what you can at times like this.

Still, since this is the parlor game du jour, let's see if we can't fix hockey too. Especially since our solution is easy to understand and implement.

To start, Bob Goodenow needs to be fired. And in summation, Gary Bettman needs to be fired, too.

Goodenow's firing is easy to understand, in that he is the Richie Phillips of the new millennium. He bluffed with an ultimately unplayable hand, caved, and still got his face rubbed in it. Union leaders who negotiate a deal this good always get fired, and in any event, Goodenow seems to be as popular with his constituents as a dumpster full of skunks.

But Bettman? He is, of course, golden because his constituency, The Gang Of Eight Or So, is thrilled. They get what they want, a crippled union, and can get back to the business of overcharging for everything from tickets to parking to beer to those little hockey sticks that get wedged between the seats of the minivan on the drive home and aren't found until the van gets sold.

And for all that, Bettman should still be fired, because in doing the business of the hard-liners, he has become the face of a sport in crisis, one that has marched smartly toward the back of a line that now includes bicycle racing, trick-shot pool, B-list celebrity poker, and God help us all, the All-Star Red Carpet.

The players can't stand him. The fans loathe him. The media is in full dismissive mode about him and his sport. And hockey needs all the good will in those three areas that it can spin.

Oh, there were 30 happy-talk conference calls Wednesday, one for each team, and all of them had the same general tone -- "we're ready to move forward." Given the state of the game on every level, from standard of play to hyperactive expansion to hockey-resistant areas to a shriveling TV market, the idea of "forward" is ludicrous.

In fact, hockey needs to redevelop its audience, which will take time and careful contraction. It needs to change its game to reward speed rather than sloth, of which shrinking the goalie equipment to sub-sofa size is a step in the right direction.

And it needs to acknowledge that settling a lockout that never needed to last this long is not a victory on any level, but the belated acknowledgment of a monumental error for which only shame can be attached.

You see, a sports league has one responsibility that supercedes all others -- staging the damned games. The NHL failed in this, on the grandest scale ever, and even if Bettman was the good soldier for the hard-liners, his time is done because the task has changed from crushing the players' union to restoring faith in the people who give us the games.

And Bettman isn't the guy for that, not given the way the game shrank in importance and entertainment value on his watch.

This would represent an act of profound disloyalty on the part of the owners for whom he carried the heavy end of the piano, but loyalty is among the first things to go in desperate times. And these are desperate times.

Desperate times, times that cry out for creativity, to which the people who run hockey have shown a profound aversion over the years. They make cool uniform sweaters, true, and they tried to colonize the southern half of the United States in an attempt to grow the game, but the game didn't grow. The league did, in part because the owners were hungry for all the expansion fees it could choke down, but not the game.

No, this is an enormous task, one which can be done only by someone who won't be booed, ridiculed and drowned out the way Bettman will be. He is the Lockout Commissioner now, an immutably damaging legacy for someone who thought when he left the NBA that hockey could be his ticket to ride.

At least that's how it should play out, but understanding the way the hockey business works, Bettman is likely safe. He followed the power, and the power won. He was the front man so Billy Wirtz and Jeremy Jacobs and Peter Karmanos didn't have to be, and in the tiny world of Us-Versus-Them, Bettman delivered.

But now the job requirement has changed, and it is unlikely that Wirtz, Jacobs, et. al., see that, or want to. They got cost certainty. They got massive rollbacks. They got Goodenow's head on a pike in the front yard. For them, this was a great day.

Now comes the hard part, and the hard part starts with erasing every possible vestige of this yearlong disgrace. If this is a new day, it should start with new characters.

That won't fix hockey, but as a start, it sure beats curving the blue line or making the goal a trapezoid.

Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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