Joe Tuscano Column

Lockout another blow to NHL image

Lockout deals another blow to NHL image

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After more than four months of bickering not normally found outside a kindergarten class, the owners and players in the National Hockey League finally came to an agreement to end the lockout.


Did the master negotiations of players representative Donald Fehr, who once led the Major League Baseball Players Association with such a dominating hand that owners cringed before taking his phone calls, win the day?


Or did Gary Bettman, whose legacy as commissioner of the NHL will be tied to three work stoppages, wield enough power to influence the owners into coming to an agreement?


Neither.


No matter what’s in the details of the new contract, the NHL has shown again that it is no more than – what did Mario Lemieux call it once? Oh, yeah – a garage league in the way they handled this negotiation process.


At least the loss of the 2004-05 season came with some benefits besides a revamped economic picture. The game was going to change on the ice. No more clutching and grabbing, opening play for the stars to shine and not be dragged to the level of the brutes. What was gained in this stoppage? On the list are pension contributions, salary buyouts, contract limitations, and a 50-50 split of revenues.


Ah, revenues.


That’s what won the day and sparked a settlement. Players did not want to give up a season’s worth of salary and owners did not want to lose a season’s worth of sales. That’s why a negotiation was reached before the season-ending deadline of mid-January: to salvage at least half a year from players making millions and owners making, well, a lot more than that.


What about the fans? What do they get?


They can watch hockey again. Other than that, they were never a consideration. Millions of dollars were lost by the ancillary businesses: restaurants, hotels, stadium workers, etc.


Rabid hockey fans are going to rush back to the arenas to welcome back their teams. They would have done so under any circumstance, like lemmings, adorned in their favorite team’s sweaters and memorabilia. Consol Energy Center will be packed with wild-eyed Penguins fans for the first home game because of their love of hockey and belief Pittsburgh has a chance to win the asterisked Stanley Cup.


With some of the best players in the league in forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins are one of the favorites. It’s not like that in every NHL city.


To the fair-weather hockey fans, the ones who don’t really know the difference between icing and offsides, this lockout was another reason not to pay attention. Rabid followers of the sport sniff at their ignorance and scoff at the idea they are that important to the league.


They are.


These are the people the NHL needs to expand the sport and increase revenues. Corporations also walked during the lockout. McDonald’s reportedly took a multi-million dollar ad campaign for the Winter Classic and All-Star Game to the NFL. Luring that money back might not be that easy, especially with the NHL’s history of work stoppages.


The new labor deal supposedly guarantees labor peace for the next eight years, which is a good thing. It will probably take that long for the league to recover from this mess.



Assistant sports editor Joe Tuscano can be reached at jtuscano@observer-reporter.com


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