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MIKE PENNER

Fiddling While the Fans Burn

October 21, 1994|MIKE PENNER

So good of the NHL to send out its new and abridged calendar for 1994-95, featuring all the major dates worth circling:

Oct. 31--Halloween.

Nov. 24--Thanksgiving.

Dec. 25--Christmas.

Jan. 1--College Bowl Day.

Jan. 21 (or thereabouts)--1994-95 NHL Season Opens*.

(* New $155-million Fox TV hockey contract kicks in on Jan. 21, 1995. "Miraculous breakthrough" in negotiations expected sometime around Jan. 14, 1995.)

So, as hockey fans sit and wait and bide their time watching Prime Ticket re-runs of the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs, luxuriating in the sweet sound of Marty McSorley illegally scraping, torching and reshaping his stick, it is worth noting that the owners and the players actually agreed on something the other day.

It happened at a press briefing at the Forum, during the Southern California leg of Brian Burke's league-wide "I'm Here To Speak On Behalf Of The Owners Because I'm A Lot Nicer And Warmer To The Camera Than Gary Bettman" tour.

From behind the microphone at the front of room, Burke refuted the charge that the NHL had blown its window of opportunity by locking out its players at the same time baseball was locking out the World Series, saying:

"We think that this league, even with the current problems we've got to solve, is poised to do some great things.

"We don't think the (exciting) hockey that was played last spring is going to be wasted. We don't feel it's a fluke that we were able to put the greatest sport in the world on national television here in the U.S. for the first time in many years . . .

"We think we can continue to increase revenue streams because of two things. One, this is clearly the world's greatest game. No question about it. Whatever you like in a sport, we have it. And we have it better, faster and more entertaining, in my opinion, than any other sport.

"Two, we have the greatest athletes in the world. People talk about athletic ability in other sports. Our guys do everything an athlete has to do in any other sport, and they do it on skates--which is a difficult task in itself--and they do it with a fear of getting knocked on their butt at any given time in the game. We not only allow contact in hockey, we encourage it . . .

"Of the four major sports, we're (still) fourth place in virtually every area. We think we're poised to make a move and catch one of those sports."

In the back of the room, the Kings' McSorley, a member of the players association negotiating committee, listened and nodded.

"Everybody knows that the game of hockey is immensely popular right now," McSorley said. "Everybody knows that it's growing dramatically. . . . The owners realize revenues are going to increase dramatically, as do we."

There it is.

Accord.

It lasted until McSorley was able to take another breath.

"Sitting there at the table with an open mind, saying, 'Is there any room to have an agreement?'--I don't think the commitment is there on their side for a compromise," McSorley said.

"I think it's an all-out drive for victory for their side, to capture the future revenues of the game."

Professional hockey in late 1994 is at the kind of crossroads major league baseball faced in 1949, and professional football faced in 1959, and the NBA faced in 1979.

Boom period, just up a ways.

Full speed ahead.

Now name the first major North American sport to approach this fork in the road and slam on the brakes.

Baseball has been running on stupid for quite some time now, but in the late '40s, with the racial barrier collapsing, great young players emerging and the bonanza of West Coast expansion looming, the lords of the game had enough foresight to at least keep the players playing. Nobody took the ball out of Ralph Branca's hand before he could pitch it to Bobby Thomson. No one canceled the World Series before Vic Wertz and Willie Mays got to play long-distance pepper.

Likewise, the NFL a decade later knew television was about to catapult pro football from second-rate status to Super Bowl Sunday and Monday night madness, seeing the same type of indicators hockey does today.

Pete Rozelle always made sure his season started on schedule.

All the great moments in sports history have one thing in common. None of them ever occurred during a work stoppage. Burke might be right when he says his game has the best athletes in the world, but what's the point when all 700 are sitting at home, eating cheese balls and watching videotape of games played 16 months earlier?

The owners' position--that the league is impoverished and requires financial assistance--is retrograde, and the players know it. Hockey used to be the pauper on the sports page, but not anymore. And if certain franchises continue to struggle today, it is from years of promotional neglect, not the present-day salary structure--which, as it is, remains a good decade behind the going rate for right fielders and power forwards.

"We don't agree that the owners are struggling as much as they say," McSorley said. "You've got as many as eight cities lined up right now for expansion. If we signed a bargaining agreement today, within four years there would be four more teams in the NHL, and each one of them would be paying $75-100 million in expansion fees.

"Now tell me that's a suffering business."

Better days are ahead for hockey, as everybody involved readily acknowledges. This is why the Bettman Lockout is the most lame-brained work stoppage in the annals of organized sports.

So bright a future, and yet the owners persist in dwelling in the past, miring their great game in the obscurity of the 1980s. Then, you couldn't watch a hockey game on national TV, either.

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