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NHL -- shooting in the foot, instead of the net


A couple of hours before the hockey Czar, Gary Bettman, dropped the hammer that shamelessly locked out his entire workforce there were 20 characters dressed in Ranger's jerseys parading in front of the National Hockey League's Manhattan headquarters at Sixth Ave and 47th Street.

They were a scruffy bunch, ragged and messy, and brandishing crudely made placards likening Bettman to a Sesame Street character (whom he indeed faintly resembles) and decrying the greed of the people the Czar serves, namely that odd assortment of little men who own the teams that compose the NHL, although until further notice there is, of course, really no such thing.

And there was fleetingly the notion that maybe this downright pathetic scene of a mere handful of roughnecks caring enough to howl in feeble protest on a late summer's evening might be an accurate measure of what it all means and how much impact it might have. If so, it would be the unkindest cut of all for the great but very badly served game of professional hockey.

The players are pounding the bricks for the fourth time in 20 years, all of them under Lawyer Bettman's inglorious watch. Talk of your sporting records that may never be broken.

More than 300 players were in town hanging around a hotel lobby hoping for a miracle but in the final hours before the lockout was formally declared the two sides couldn't even stage one last session, if only for the exchanging of parting insults. The players were willing but the owners said they saw "no purpose." "I'm sure we will remain in contact in coming days," advised Bill Daly, Bettman's right-hand man. Well now that's encouraging, is it not?

This is the third major labor hassle to rock the kingdom of North American pro-sport in the last year and a half. The football boys while rolling in immense riches and runaway profits had the temerity to clash early last year but quickly recognized that the sporting public was in no mood for their nonsense and settled with only minimal intrusion on the pre-season. When the basketball guys followed suit they got even less sympathy and it was with panic that they settled after wiping out the first two months of their regular season to the utter indifference of said public. Widespread agreement that the shorter season was actually preferable only added to basketball's deep embarrassment.

In both instances, the games were bruised but the NFL and NBA owners still won by succeeding in modestly reducing the amount of gross revenues players receive under the salary cap agreements that govern both leagues to about a fifty-fifty breakdown. The players were willing to accept this because the prospect of greater revenues means there will be no salary cuts, only smaller increases. And they can live with that.

Perched on the sidelines and licking their chops the hockey moguls -- green-eyed with envy -- avowed they deserve and must have the very same action.

Now, in the exalted lodge of sporting moguls, the hockey owners are pipsqueaks. You should not for a half second believe that the Kraft's, Mara's, and Rooney's regard the likes of Clan Jacobs as equals. They may even deem the pretensions of hockey owners to be as laughable as the hockey players do. But the fact persists that it was the football and basketball owners who inspired their hockey lodge brothers.

Only, the hockey guys got carried away. Whereas the football and basketball owners sought and achieved only incremental changes in the division of spoils, the hockey barons want to take a meat-axe to the formula to achieve a quantum leap to higher profits.

Under their original proposal, the players' share would be reduced by a whopping 14 percent from 57 percent to 43 percent and while it's been vaguely suggested some adjustment might be possible the two sides remain more than a billion dollars apart according to the best informed and impartial source, the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper. Some estimate the players would -- roughly across the board -- be obliged to take more than a 20 percent pay-cut. For an industry that's showing a profit with revenues that have increased 50 percent over the last seven years that's pretty hard to justify.

The dividing of the pie is the big issue but the owners want more; much more. They seek major changes in key provisions of the collective bargaining agreement. They essentially wish to recall or at least trim the basic rights the players have earned in bloody labor battles over the last quarter century. The attack is total and radical. They want to roll back the clock and if they can destroy the union in the process, so much the better.

The idea that any bargaining group that calls itself a "union" could capitulate to such a campaign is ludicrous. No matter their posturing, the owners know that. They also know that the players are now represented by the strongest, most competent, and most experienced labor leadership they've ever had. In Don Fehr, the disciple of Marvin Miller who led the MLBPA in even more formidable battles with baseball's much more powerful owners, they have a tiger by the tail. And they know that too.

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