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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : Credibility of League Jeopardized

November 01, 1994|HELENE ELLIOTT

No matter what economic reforms the NHL eventually rams down players' throats, no gain can justify the damage the league is causing to its credibility by sustaining the lockout.

It's getting ugly on all fronts. Players criticize owners' greed, but they talk about signing minor league contracts that would take away the job of some $30,000-a-year hopeful. Negotiators call each other liars and churn out enough statements, charts and multicolored graphs to denude a forest. Charges of antisemitism, whispered about for weeks, are openly leveled by Senior Vice President Brian Burke against some critics of Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Gutter-level stuff. Slime.

In the meantime, fans are getting out of the habit of going to games or watching hockey on TV. They're going to movies, watching football and finding other ways to spend their money. Ticket sales have stalled everywhere and merchandise sales have slowed after several boom years.

"We've dropped right off the face of the earth," said Roy Mlakar, chief operating officer of the Pittsburgh Penguins and former president of the Kings.

The hard-core fans will return, but the casual fans, the ones the NHL needs to broaden its scope, are disillusioned and unlikely to return. Bettman claims he wants to make a deal, but he hasn't offered an alternative to the proposal he rejected Oct. 11. He's too busy sending Burke around North America on a propaganda tour. And Bob Goodenow, executive director of the NHL Players Assn., is too busy calling owners' financial data deceptive when he could use figures of what \o7 is \f7 reported to estimate the difference, and proceed from there.

The NBA accepted its players' no-strike, no-lockout pledge, but Bettman wouldn't accept an identical offer from his players in late September. The NBA could be in the same position as the NHL a year from now, but basketball's history of productive labor negotiations provides reason to believe the NBA will avoid this mess.

"They look brilliant and intelligent and we look like dummies," said Neil Abbott, an NHL player agent. "Our game is being hurt. . . . I think there's a drop-dead date coming up at about mid-December if we haven't started playing by then. You can't start the season Jan. 21."

It's painful to say, but maybe hockey's critics have been right all along. Maybe it is a minor sport. Bettman has a major problem if he thinks killing the season is the way to make the game grow.

HAVE PUCK, WILL TRAVEL

Penguin winger Jaromir Jagr had to be helped off the ice Sunday after taking a crunching hit while playing for HC Kladno in the Czech Republic. Jagr said he wasn't seriously hurt, but he decided not to play for his homeland in the German Cup tournament.

Think the Penguins were a little concerned? And what happens if Wayne Gretzky tears up his knee during the European tour he wants to organize?

Insurance would cover his medical expenses, but the Kings could never recoup what he's worth to the franchise if he suffered a career-ending injury. They can't stop him, but he--and every player participating in the exhibition tournaments that are springing up--must consider whether the games are worth the risk. If players are restless, there are charities and youth hockey groups that could put their energy to good use.

MODEL CITIZENS

Six NHL players are featured in a fashion layout in the November issue of GQ magazine, wearing expensive overcoats.

At least Vancouver's Bret Hedican, Quebec's Curtis Leschyshyn, Edmonton's Jason Arnott, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, St. Louis' Brendan Shanahan and the New York Rangers' Mike Richter won't be locked out cold.

LABOR OF LOVE

Out-of-work players, executives and broadcasters are finding interesting ways to stay busy.

Calgary's Ronnie Stern is a bouncer in a bar. Bruin forward Jamie Huscroft, who was to have earned $200,000 this season, found work as a landscaper. New Jersey Devil Coach Jacques Lemaire went to Montreal to play in some pickup games.

Buffalo defenseman Denis Tsygurov joined Lada Togliatti, a touring Russian team, for a series of games against Colonial Hockey League teams. He probably got a great deal: His father, Gennady, is Lada Togliatti's coach.

Sherry Ross, analyst on New Jersey Devil radio broadcasts, is writing informational blurbs for the backs of hockey trading cards.

Well, someone has to.

THEY'RE NOT LEAVING ON A JET PLANE--YET

Having failed to get the Edmonton Oilers to move to Minneapolis, the folks at Target Center are wooing the Winnipeg Jets.

Dana Warg, Target Center's executive director, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune "the stars are in the right direction" for the Jets to be there by the 1995-96 season.

That's a bit hasty. There's a group trying to keep the club in Winnipeg by building a new arena, and it has asked corporations and individual ticket buyers to indicate whether they would be willing to buy luxury suites and club seats. If the response is good, they will try to persuade the government to kick in some funding.

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