Let's give them something to talk about

Updated: November 18, 2004, 6:03 PM ET
By Adam Proteau | The Hockey News

Vacationers can usually be lumped into one of two groups: (a) the cruise directors, peppy and day-planned down to the minute, ready to suck the last of the marrow from the day's bones; and, (b) the loner sloths, whose down time is best spent doing nothing more than more of nothing, in a location as far from time and technology as the travel agent's computer can confirm them.

One guess which group GB/BG (a.k.a. Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow) belong in. (If you said No. 1, go sit in the corner -- and no more reading www.nhlcbapropaganda.com or Trevor Linden's new book, "I Wasn't Kidding When I Said Baseball Has An Admirable Labor Structure, So Why Is Everyone Laughing At Me?")

Goodness knows how the NHL commissioner and his player-representing counterpart are whiling away the time during these empty days of the lockout, but judging by their output to date -- retractions, cancellations and enough finger-pointing to qualify as a Posh Spice tribute -- our best guess is they're not ordering in for dinner and waking up at their desks.

Therein lies yet another reason to despair over the leadership of the sport: although few of us expect a season to be salvaged at this point -- both sides obviously have their eyes on the endgame of replacement players and court challenges, which promises to be uglier and more ineffective than the bastard child of Jimmy Durante and the WHA's latest player recruitment drive -- most of us know the game has bigger problems than its bottom line. So most of us would rather see them straighten out what labor law strategies have afforded them the time to now, as opposed to waiting until one problem is solved before starting on another.

And hoo-boy, does the NHL have its problems. Anybody who has sat through an icing-filled, trap-alicious, tug-of-bore game that's become the norm at NHL arenas knows the product itself is more important -- and more damaged -- than the splitting of the product's dividends. Everybody who has wondered where all the TV ratings went knows cost certainty hadn't a damn thing to do with it. The NHL's financial anatomy has ballooned like Kirstie Alley lost inside a marshmallow warehouse, but the league's entertainment profile weighs in like Olive Oyl-thin, unsightly and in desperate need of a strongman to save it. The only muscles GB/BG are flexing these days are the ones in their face, as they squint and grimace their way through another round of meaningless press conferences. The only protecting they're doing involves their own best interests, which must come off well at the respective year-end banquets, but does little to ensure there'll be more banquets to attend in years to come.

Think of what they could be doing instead: they could be figuring out how to rescue the style of play kidnapped by hyper-coaching and limp-wristed rule enforcement. They could be mandating measures to protect their on-ice employees (i.e. no-touch icing, mandatory visors). They could draw up new marketing techniques that run counter to hockey's traditional "self-promotion-is-Satan's-candy" philosophy. They could be working toward better production values for their televised games, ones that bring the players' speed and skill to the fore (hint: that static, center ice shot that moves like an oscillating fan tends to frame the game as Pong set on a white backdrop. All retro trend benefits considered, this isn't a good thing). For all we care, they could be haggling over the pros and cons of the Predators' alternate jersey. At the very least, they should be pretending it really isn't all about money and deal with issues that don't require an independent arbitrator. And who knows, maybe meeting on non-CBA issues plants the seeds of trust and partnership that in time will put the league on equal ground with its competition, instead of the current, fractured, Spy Vs. Spy relationship that has no mend in sight.

A thorough housecleaning of the game is a PR victory waiting to be capitalized on. Although the players' union has done its best to alienate the public throughout this ordeal -- by robbing lesser players of a lesser financial existence, by ignoring the chorus line of athletes from other sports who looked a salary cap in the face and lived to endorse it -- they could take a big step toward in redeeming themselves by taking the initiative and proposing a quick-turnover committee focused on the sport's non-financial components. Or maybe the owners will jump on the idea, and in the process continue to vilify the players -- you know, the same guys they'll want you to pay to see once this is all just a bitter memory -- by painting them as short-sighted money-grubbers with little regard for the people who pay the freight. (As they say, takes one to know one.)

But that's probably too much to ask. There are probably tons of behind-the-scenes nits to pick that, somehow, deserve priority over the game itself. There are probably some special chocolates this collection of Willy Wonkas thinks us wide-eyed kiddies shouldn't get our hands on. Both sides have never raced to solicit the input of the folks that are always right, so we're not optimistic such a thing will happen soon.

But never let it be said that the emperor wasn't unaware he was naked. For far too many years, the gatekeepers of the sport have turned away from repeated suggestions the their beloved dominion's foundation was crumbling beneath them. What we're seeing now, in the form of ticket giveaways and overwhelming public apathy, is the manifestation of that denial. And it's maddening beyond words that neither side can see the big picture for what it is.

Here's what it is: not simply a classic case of putting the cart before the Clydesdale, but even worse, of starving the horse until it falls over dead.

On the bright side, they've got plenty of spare time to search out a new steed. Here's hoping they settle on a Secretariat, rather than sticking with what they've got a broken-down Mr. Ed who's due for a date with the glue factory.

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

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