No reason for optimism to reign
Ten years ago today in Stockholm, Wayne Gretzky and his band of traveling all-stars thumped Djurdgarden of the Swedish elite league by a one-sided 9-3 score.
Today, another group of locked-out NHLers, suitably dubbed the Primus Worldstars in true corporatese, are in Latvia for the first game of their Euro-tour.
From Stockholm to Riga in a decade; this is progress, NHL-style.
Backwards, that is. Lousy taste and less filling.
In 1994, Gretzky's tour was sexy and unique, and it came with a scent of future progress, despite the fact the NHL was out of business due to labor problems.
"Within the next 10 years, we will have some sort of division over here," said The Great One then from the tour in Sweden.
Not only was Gretzky wrong, he would have undoubtedly been dismayed if, at that time, he could have foreseen the future of the NHL.
Sure, there's lots of money on the table, more than $2 billion in revenues for the players and teams to split up. Faces and roles have changed. Gretzky is now an owner and the coach of his barnstormers that year, Doug Wilson, is now the general manager of the San Jose Sharks.
But while the notion of European expansion was the kind of giddy daydreaming that was possible back in '94 on the heels of the Stanley Cup victory by the New York Rangers that positioned the NHL as a league ready to explode into a new era of success, there is no similar mood of hope surrounding the badly messed-up NHL right now.
Indeed, the fact that Detroit Red Wings winger Brendan Shanahan felt compelled to organize a summit on fixing the game this week in Toronto at the same time NHL players were preparing a new offer for the league's owners tells you all you need to know about the current state of affairs.
No one would argue right now that the NHL is set to vault into a new stratosphere of success and prosperity. In fact, just the opposite is the case, with many gloomily wondering what will be left of the league's scarred public image when a new collective bargaining agreement is finally struck.
As was the case in '94, the key central theme remains leadership, specifically that provided to the players by National Hockey League Players' Association executive director by Bob Goodenow and to the owners by NHL commisioner Gary Bettman.
Indeed, as the two men sit across the table today at NHL offices in Toronto, the hockey world is still waiting for one or the other -- or both -- to assert themselves as dealmakers and sporting statesmen.
For more than a decade, these two men have supposedly been working at developing a partnership, but the third NHL labor stoppage in 12 years demonstrates that both have been working only on developing and cementing the support of their own constituents.
Owners don't like or respect Goodenow.
Players, according to union officials and certain veterans, don't respect Bettman.
This is a fight over dollars that has somehow become more intensely personal as the years have passed. The two leaders, meanwhile, have proved successful only in speaking to those who already agree with them.
Their greatest achievement in this lockout, a process that has followed a very predictable path over the past two years, is that they have been able to maintain the support of the people who pay them.
So if there is hope today in Toronto -- and there's no reason to believe the basis for an agreement is in the offing -- it lies in the possibility that these two men will finally look beyond the needs of their group and make the philosophical connection that has eluded them for so very long.
The players aren't offering a salary cap today, so the easiest response from Bettman would be to walk away from the table.
But the players are offering concessions. Indeed, after vowing 10 years ago to never accept a luxury tax on payrolls, the union is proposing such a plan this time around.
That should tell you that despite what the two sides say, this is not a fight over principles. It's a fight over money, about ownership's ability to control costs and improve franchise values and the union's ability to maintain a system in which inflationary pressures can continue to improve salaries, benefits and working conditions.
A visionary, one able to understand the needs of both sides and give a little to get a little, is sorely needed.
Could it be Bettman or Goodenow? History would say no, that neither man has demonstrated a convincing ability to look beyond the selfish interests of the group he represents.
The players, its fair to say, have done nothing to enhance the sport over the past 10 years other than playing the games. Shanahan's summit this week suitably highlighted that point, for it was hard to think of another player who had stuck his neck out for the welfare of the game in a similar fashion.
The owners, meanwhile, have greedily lapped up expansion dollars, shifted teams from hockey-crazy cities to iffy new locales and supervised the downgrading of the nightly entertainment package to the point no U.S. network is inclined to purchase a chunk of NHL matches for a sizeable rights fee.
When the league finally came to the conclusion it needed to fix the game, the players became obstructionist, grieving proposed changes to downsize goalie equipment on an issue of procedure.
In 10 years, the players are richer, the league is bigger, but the overall industry is less healthy.
The only way to save this season, starting today, is for one or both of the two leaders to show some imagination, to veer off this so very predictable path of labor strife and to create a new dynamic.
But I wouldn't hold my breath on that one.Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
MORE NHL HEADLINES
- Canucks fire coach Vigneault after 7 seasons
- Defenseman Sutton retires after 15 seasons
- Report: Avs in talks to hire Roy as coach
- Predators hire Housley after Horachek fired