Sunday, January 23, 2005

Shame on Them

First...let me thank Norm Sanders for the nice article about me, and the others who are innocent victims of the NHL work stoppage, that he wrote for the Sunday Belleville News-Democrat. Norm, himself, is a victim of this thing too. He and his fine coverage are normally much more
visible at this time of year.

I wrote here earlier that there would be some bad news…followed by some good news in the NHL work stoppage. The tip came to me through the “usually reliable” Blues grapevine. When Bob Goodenow made the announcement last weekend that any players who have jobs in Europe should plan to keep them for another year…I considered that to be the predicted “bad news”. When it came out earlier this week that players and owners would get together…without Goodenow and Commissioner Bettman…to try to hammer out an agreement, I considered that to be the “good news”.

So much for good news.

Unless some kind of miracle happens, it appears now that hockey will attain the distinction of becoming the first major professional sport to cancel an entire season due to a labor problem.

Of course this hurts the players and the owners less than just about everybody else that has anything to do with the presentation of the sport. And it certainly hurts the fans…and the fan base…more than the rich boys who can’t decide how to divide up the booty.

Being the Blues p.a. announcer since 1987…I’ve been witness to a major shift in the type of people who play this sport. In the 80’s, it seemed that most of the players were Canadian farm boys, American kids from somewhere close to Canada, and a few Europeans. No matter where they were from, it appeared that all of them were delighted with the idea that they could play their favorite “frozen pond” game and make a more-than-decent living at it while living in relative luxury in some major city in North America. Because of their innocence, and their appreciation for their good fortune, they were fun to be around and made it easy to be a fan. Being behind the scenes and in the locker room at the old Arena, I became fast friends with many of these quality people. Dave Lowry, Doug Gilmour, Bob Bassen, Larry Patey are just a few that fit this mold.

Somewhere in the early to mid 90’s, though, things began changing dramatically. The big money started to take over the sport. It became less and less about the people, and more and more about how much they were making. The mindset and attitude of the “new players” seemed to be a lot like the “what’s in it for me” boys of professional baseball, basketball, and football. I’m not saying all of the people in those sports are “bad actors”. But there’s a much higher percentage than there was in hockey.

Suddenly we didn’t know any of the players. They all wore helmets. They had names that were foreign…because they were. A much higher percentage came from Eastern Europe where we had no idea of the story behind their rise to glory. And one thing seemed to dominate their thoughts. Money. We’ve all heard the stories about how the teams who were dominated by the Europeans would tank in the Stanley Cup playoffs because they made their money for the season and didn’t care about winning The Cup. It seemed to me that the same attitude began to permeate all of the rosters. When we sent that U.S. team of our best NHL players to the Olympics and they not only got clobbered…but embarrassed the nation by destroying hotel rooms, that seemed to me to be the signature of the transformation from the “boys of the frozen pond”, to the “boys of the kiss my behind”. We didn’t know these people, and didn’t want to claim them.

Now, it seems, today’s players feel entitled to stay at the pay level that they’ve attained…just because they’ve attained it. No matter that they might not have earned it. No matter that their sport is in financial disarray. No matter that there is a paltry pot of TV money to divide. No matter that the sport itself has become a boring defensive-minded, plodding ritual that isn’t fun to watch. By God, we’re multi-million dollar-a-month players and the financial health of our industry be damned…we’ve attained a certain level and we’re keeping it…or won’t play. Come on boys…smell just a little of the coffee.

Certainly the owners are not blameless in this whole thing. They, however, spent their money in a competitive environment without the kind of controls in place that they now are seeking because they wanted to make their teams better. They wanted to sell more tickets. They wanted to promote their sport, and to have more money to pay the players…by creating better teams. It only makes sense to me, in any kind of professional sport, to make the economic playing field a level one. Why should fans in small markets have to continually suffer through season after season of losing…just because there’s no way their owner can be financially competitive.
It’s a game…and all of the owners should be able to play at a certain level. We don’t let one team put 7 guys on the ice while the other team has 3.

I don’t know where our “freckle-faced kid” of a sport went…but it doesn’t look like it’s coming back any time soon. That is unless the owners follow through on the possibility of blowing it all up and starting over. Even then, I don’t know where we find someone with a Bob Bassen mindset anymore.

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