Pride came before NHL fall

Updated: March 1, 2005, 3:34 PM ET
By Adam Proteau | The Hockey News

"The infinitely little," wrote Voltaire, "have a pride infinitely great."

That's the moral of the story, when the story is the spectacularly embarrassing and pathetically prolonged NHL lockout. The prettiest of the seven deadly sins didn't get to all of them, but it got to the ones that mattered. And ultimately, pride plucked the last thread from a league that delighted in its own unraveling.

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Pride turned what already was a world-class horror movie into a snuff film. It stopped Gary Bettman from calling Bob Goodenow when it mattered most, and it stopped Bob Goodenow from calling Gary Bettman at the same point, revealing both as the wrong men in the wrong roles at the wrong time. It is what great men like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux put aside in hopes of protecting jobs, people and dreams. And it is what black-hearted bottom-liners in Boston and Chicago clung to as the final reel of film came snapping off the projector. Money is what most of us have designated as the root cause of this collective descent into madness, but money is just pride's manifestation as legal tender.

Clearly, this isn't just about greenbacks anymore. This is a manhood-measuring match spun irretrievably out of control.

Why would the NHLPA come to the table last Saturday -- fully aware the league already had demonstrated its contempt for the season as nothing more than a bargaining chip -- without some kind of proposal in hand? Why would the league -- fully aware it already had a more significant victory than almost any other pro sports organization in history could claim - not extend an olive branch that allowed its players to salvage a sliver of dignity?

P-R-I-D-E, that's why. If the players only want to be paid "what they're worth" and the owners only want to pay out "what they can afford," then pride is the currency Goodenow and Bettman can't convert to each other's satisfaction. Funny thing is, these two vulgarians, who claim to have major philosophical differences, sure do seem to share the scorched-earth approach to negotiations.

For proof, see Bettman leaving Lemieux and Gretzky twisting in the wind so as not to incur the wrath of a fossil like Bill Wirtz; see Goodenow breaking the hearts of at least half of his employers by abandoning a principle he'd made them defend like Clarence Darrow. See Bettman, claiming the players' union "set up" the league in their most recent meeting; see Goodenow, speaking through No. 2 man Ted Saskin, falling back on that old knee-slapper about "having no negotiating partner."

See Bettman leaving the door open to cancel his cancellation of the season, then coming into last weekend's meeting with a blank page as a peace offering; see Goodenow -- who couldn't rent the decency to apologize to fans the day the season was cancelled -- arrogantly assuming a pot of gold was about to be couriered to him by Lemieux and Gretzky.

These are the people we're supposed to believe eventually will learn to grow the game as partners, whenever the league comes crawling back?

It's a shame nerve isn't flammable, because we could have tossed a lit match into an NHL-NHLPA bargaining session in 1999 and avoided the disgrace that has since unfolded. And all of it has unfolded in the name of obtaining, as our colleague Mike Brophy so aptly put it, a victory rather than a settlement. All of it for the pride of knowing one side pulled a fast one on the other. How proud they all must be now: their professional lives are comatose, but their pride has a full bill of health.

These are the people fans are supposed to have faith in for the future?

Why does a guy like Sean Avery, who dates supermodel Rachael Hunter and lives in Los Angeles eight months a year, stare his own gift horse in the mouth by spouting the kind of xenophobia that would force Don Cherry to file a complaint with the CBC? Why does a successful businessman like Senators owner Eugene Melnyk throw his full support behind a commissioner who is starting to make Gil Stein look like Paul Tagliabue? Because somehow, despite the Levitt Report lunacy and the Forbes follies, despite the empty seats and pathetic TV ratings, despite the alternating apathy and rage of their customers during this non-season, they all thought they deserved better. The fools. They should have known they were in no position to stand united against one another. They should have known they'd have to fight and scratch and claw their way back to even dream of regaining their spot as a top-four sport. Instead, they decided a deeper hole was preferable to the perceived indignities it would take to climb out of the one they were already in.

Pride is an integral part of hockey. We celebrate it when our heroes pull on their country's jersey to play in the Olympics, or when they suffer through horrific injuries to bring honor to their NHL team. It endears us to those we see wear it without regard for the consequences.

But the consequences involved in the NHL lockout are more harmful than anything that could land you on an injured reserve list. The damage done here has no rehabilitation timeline attached. And now that the course is set, there is little - infinitely little, as Voltaire noted - that anyone, even the prideful collection of suits who steered us all into a perfect storm with nary a lifeboat in sight, can do to reverse it.

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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