Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

September 16, 2012

HOPKINS: NHL takes us for chumps ... again

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — This column had to be completed Saturday afternoon, but unless there was a last-minute miracle, we are now a few hours into the latest National Hockey League lockout.

Hockey fans will sit at home and grumble until this latest “labor strife” is settled then, like lemmings being led to the slaughter, we’ll all rush back to our seats or tune in to Hockey Night in Canada and welcome them back. We’ll even open up our wallets and throw more money at them for officially licensed jerseys, the Center Ice TV package, T-shirts, jackets, Christmas ornaments, earrings and whatever else on which the merchandisers decide to slap on a logo or player’s name.

Until then, we sit at home while the players and owners get updates on negotiations between rounds of golf.

At issue is how millionaire owners and millionaire players are going to share the billions of dollars forked over by ordinary folks like you and me to support the owners’ bottom lines and the players’ retirements before most of them turn 40.

Sure, there are other issues such as when a player may become an unrestricted free agent, but realistically it all boils down to one of the seven deadly sins: Greed. These are millionaires — on both sides, except in Phoenix, of course — who’ve gotten rich off a game and who are again bickering over how to split our hard-earned discretionary income.

We lost the entire 2004-05 season with the previous lockout, one in which fans seemed to support the owners who claimed teams couldn’t survive with the business plan.

The players caved to owners’ demands and now, seven seasons later, the sport is booming financially. Most teams appear to be making money, the players are rich despite the (ever skyrocketing) “salary cap” they opposed and we keep paying more for season tickets. There’s also the incredible sums paid for individual “premium” game tickets that cost an average family of four half a week’s salary, or two seconds of playing time for your average fourth-line player.

When are we going to learn to strike back? Most likely, never. I tried after the 2004-05 debacle, vowing not to watch a single second of play in person or on TV during the 2005-06 season. I made it past the halfway point of the season but caved on Jan. 12, 2006.

That was the night my beloved New York Rangers retired Mark Messier’s number 11 to the rafters at Madison Square Garden. Knowing that there’s usually a one-week free preview of Center Ice — the premium TV package that shows dozens of games per week — in mid-season, I made a decision. If it was the free week and the game (plus retirement ceremony) was on, I’d watch. It was and I did.

Had I looked in a mirror at that point, I’d have seen a jackass looking back at me.

Here we are today, mulling over quotes such as this from Commissioner Gary Bettman: “We recovered last time because we have the world’s greatest fans.”

No, Gary, we’re not the world’s greatest fans, we’re the world’s dumbest. We listen to the owners cry poor one minute, then watch the next minute as Terry Pegula signs Ville Lieno to an enormous contract, while the Minnesota Wild sign two players to 13-year $98 million contracts, while the Rangers sign free agents to big contracts then nickel-and-dime one of their best up-and-coming defensemen.

How about this gem from Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller: “Gary (Bettman) has basically run this business for 20 years, so if he’s operated at a loss for how many of those years, how is he still in a position of leadership, or even have a job?”

The man with the NHL’s fifth largest contract among goaltenders and who placed in the bottom five among starting goalies in several statistical categories for two-thirds of the 2011-12 season, has a point. Bettman belongs in politics — where operating at a deficit is considered a talent — instead of running a business.

How long will this last? Lord knows. It might end by Thanksgiving, or it could run through the new year, wiping out the Winter Classic outdoor game at the 115,000-seat Michigan Stadium.

One thing is for sure: with Bettman leading the NHL into its third lockout since 1994 and the players being represented by Donald Fehr, the first man to lead TWO players unions into work stoppages, the fans will lose.

But when it’s settled, hockey fans will welcome them all back. Just call us inhabitants of “Palookaville.”

John J. Hopkins is the managing editor of the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal. His columns appear on Sundays. Contact Mr. Hopkins at john.hopkins@lockportjournal.com.