Pro's return to the ice

How shall we best remember the abominable National Hockey League labor dispute that devoured half a season making a proud lodge stocked with admirable characters the laughingstock of all professional sport?

Try this.

As the most pointless, needless, and dumbest exercise in mass frustration in the history of organized fun and games. A battalion of dead-end kids running wild in a schoolyard sticking their tongues out at one another would make as much sense. This dispute was never faintly rational.

And now it's over. Which means at a minimum we can move on from the tiresome cursing of the idiocy and disparaging of the combatants that was becoming almost as mindless as the feud itself? That will not, however, be easy even for those who love this crazy game. Disgust runs historically deep.

The settlement -- technically still awaiting ratification, as this is written -- makes possible a truncated regular season. Wedged into little more than three months the intensity of play might well become furious as the shorter season keeps most teams in tight playoff contention to the bitter end. A full slate of even more highly charged than usual Stanley Cup epics might even redeem the entire mess, although finishing the season on the eve of the Fourth of July could prove embarrassing for this dead of winter game.

But why be picky? There's already been much too much of that. Hockey is back! God's in his heaven, all's right with the world, eh. If only it were so easy, my dear Pippa.

So who won? I'd say the owners, although hardly by a knock-out. Still, they came away with the edge, which I don't find pleasing.

Emerging from the nightmare, the players have less power and control than they had a year ago. They face the promise of lesser future earnings, combined with reduced personal options. They will have to live with this deal for at least eight years, about twice what they prefer. Moreover, there's the loss of a half season's salary which for the average player is roughly an eighth of what he's likely to make in his entire NHL career. It's a steep price.

Some owners -- mainly the big market guys from traditional hockey hotbeds -- got stung too. But at least half the owners saved money by not having to play and some are now doubtless unhappy they'll no longer have that luxury. Try to make sense of that when you have nothing better to do.

Although that, after all, is what the dispute was all about, at least from their perspective. Even as the NHL was achieving record revenues and profits last season, 20 owners -- most from minor league towns or the Sunbelt, or both, where hockey doesn't belong and will never thrive -- claim they lost money. That's how they justified the harsh step of locking out the players while setting ridiculous terms for a settlement which in the end they mainly failed to achieve.

The owners won but by a good deal less than they'd aimed to win, nor should you underestimate how determined they were at the start. Hard bargaining at the end significantly narrowed their margin of victory, especially on the crucial issue of the salary cap. They succeeded in reducing the players' share of total revenue to 50 percent -- a reasonable level -- but their original goal was a most unreasonable 43 percent. They had to swallow larger than anticipated concessions on other issues, notably revenue sharing and pensions.

In the end, the players may have lost ground. But they probably did as well as possible whereas the owners while re-gaining the greater control of their destiny they wanted so much had to pay a bitter price in terms of lost sponsors, lost momentum, damaged TV contracts, diminished prestige. For them, it was a public relations disaster. How do you put a price tag on that?

But then it was the owners who dearly wanted this bloody brawl. Indeed, they demanded it. That they got more than they bargained for was merely appropriate.

It was Don Fehr, still every inch the implacable sports labor guru, who had the most to do with all that. In his humorless pit bull pose, Fehr quite splendidly matched up with his principal adversary, the equally unlovable Gary Bettman, bitterly dogged hired gun of the owners. There was no slick and handsome dude decked out in a white hat in this shootout; just a couple of nasty old veterans of the barricades. As labor battles go, it had some of the mood and tenor of the good old days. No doubt for many it was hard to decide who to most vigorously root against. Although for me, the choice was easy. Sorry, Mr. Commissioner, Sir.

Fehr and Bettman get paid well to be annoying, even obnoxious, now and again. It's their job, their precious role in life to which they are supremely dedicated. For Jeremy Jacobs, owner of the Bruins and -- as the powerful Chairman of the NHL's Board of Governors -- the most unrelentingly hawkish of all the owners who at times in the talks seemingly yearned to sustain the animosities singlehandedly if need be, it's an avocation that he clearly relishes.

Mr. Jacobs has offered no explanation for the odd intensity of his strong feelings on the subject, no clue as to the source of his apparent considerable anger. By all appearances he has done rather well in his rather too long hockey stewardship in Boston. It's unlikely we'll ever get an answer. It has never been Mr. Jacobs' custom to offer explanations.

Some expect recriminations. Larry Brooks of the New York Post who with some four decades in the dodge is a dean of American hockey writers has already predicted that players -- especially free-agents -- will balk at playing for the Bruins as a means of getting even with Jacobs. Not that it's likely to ruin old Jeremy's day. He's never been a fan of free-agents; not even his own.

All that nonsense aside it's reasonable to expect hard feelings to linger. The settlement bringing immediate relief is welcome but the nastiness of the process won't soon be forgotten. Moreover there remain huge issues to engage, all of them tough.

Weak franchises abound, nor does the new CBA necessarily make them stronger. The NHL remains grossly overexpanded. At a minimum, teams must be yanked from incompatible Sunbelt burghs and resettled in true hockey towns, preferably north of the border. Desperate is the need for new leadership, maybe even a revised governing structure. It's inconceivable that Bettman can remain an effective Commissioner after his role in the late fiasco. Vital marketing and promotion concerns grow as does the fabulous potential of the international game. It's more than the aged likes of Bettman and Jacobs can handle. The NHL needs to get into the 21st century while leaving the curious characters who guided them to the very abyss of ruin in the last one.

It was a helluva close call. But if there were many goats there was also an undisputed hero and that would be a gentleman described by those who had the great pleasure of watching him work as modest, unassuming, invariably polite, and entirely brilliant.

He's the federal mediator, Scot L. Beckenbaugh, who rescued the talks when they were collapsing the day after New Year's and three days later -- in a masterpiece of conflict-resolution -- brokered the deal that saved the game in a marathon 16 hour, make-or-break, showdown that ended at 5 in the morning in a scenario Hollywood might have found too much to make up.

The role of Horatio at this bridge was played by a man we may never hear of again. I nominate Mr. Beckenbaugh for the Hart Trophy, annually given to the NHL's MVP. And why not toss in the Lady Byng too. It's the bauble awarded the performer deemed to have been, amidst all the madness, the most gracious!