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For the Celtics, the end of a sort-of ‘era’ … for the NHL, storm clouds are gathering

At last the winter games wane, which is reasonable given that we are brinking on the month of July. The NBA season might even be over by the glorious Fourth although, alas, it will be immaterial to the Celtics who – in their latest incarnation – may have been dispersed to the golf links for good.  It’s hardly the first era to end with a whimper, which is what is now being widely proclaimed.

But does the Pierce/Garnett/Allen edition actually compose an “era?” It would in most towns. But these are the Celtics we are talking about. Genuine Celtics eras necessarily last a full sporting generation (approximately 8-10 yrs).

In their five-year run, this “Big Three” reaped one title, one near-miss, three sturdy challenges, and sufficient entertainment to easily validate Danny Ainge’s premise in bringing them together, which so many initially deemed so rash. That’s good enough in most towns. But these are the Celtics. If the three amigos now disband they’ll be remembered as the mainstays of what was almost but not quite a true “era.”

Paul Pierce will get a victory lap before fading; Kevin Garnett will do what’s best for Kevin Garnett; and Rajon Rondo, who muscled his way into stardom in making it a “core-four,” will be left all alone in his prime.

But can you build a franchise around the mercurial Rondo? That’s just  one of the huge questions the team now faces. How lucky they are to still have Doc Rivers to help them do so. It was Rondo’s good fortune to play alongside the elegant Ray Allen during these years, but it’s not clear how much of Allen’s fabled “class” rubbed off. Watching Rondo stomp away in a snit when it ended in Miami while Allen was lingering on the court congratulating the victors was a reminder of how much the lad still needs to learn. He’d better do so real quick. The next Celtics “era” must certainly revolve around him.

Regrettably, we bid adieu to Allen, a gentleman who would have graced any of the Celtics’ great “eras.”
In the end, they may have been lucky to have been spared the necessity of engaging the Oklahoma City upstarts in the Finals. The Thunder, who systematically rolled over the Mavericks, Lakers, and seemingly invincible Spurs en route, are downright scary. The Heat can have them. Loathers of the Miami dandies may yet get their wish. Back in New England, how many will care? How many will even watch?

In the meantime, the hockey season has chugged to a middling, even flat, conclusion with ominous storm clouds gathering on the game’s horizon much diminishing its annual Stanley Cup opus.

That takes nothing away from the Kings, whose run to the Cup was astounding given that they just barely made the playoffs. The psycho-dynamics of hockey’s post-season have become a fascinating study. Teams seemingly lie in the weeds, waiting to spring. It’s all about reaching the end-game still healthy and hungry. Such were the Kings, and their MVP, Jonathan Quick, the gallant goalie out of that hockey hotbed, UMass.

It was not a great Stanley Cup festival. There were too many controversies, too many intensely tight defensive struggles, too many squabbles about officiating, too many stretches of dreary play. Given that there was so much venting all season about the dangers of dirty hits leading to needless hurts, it was ironic that a dumb intent-to-injure penalty finished off the Devils in the final game. Or maybe it was just fitting.

Nor is it provincial of me to observe that said Finals lacked both the passion and drama that made last year’s Bruins-Canucks finale much more memorable. It’s nice that Los Angeles got to drink from the Cup after 45 years, but that doesn’t mean La La Land will ever be a place where this game thrives.
So the season is done. And now comes Hockey’s real showdown, making anything that occurs on the ice, however nasty, seem tame. The game’s labor-wars – in all of their consummate stupidity – are about to resume.

Officially, it will explode when the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires in September, on the eve of next season. The boys will chat in the meantime, but pre-game posturing suggests neither side is anxious. All the signs are bad, and with the fall-out from the bitter meltdown that wiped out an entire season just eight years ago still hovering, the prospect of a reprise hung over this year’s usually rollicking Stanley Cup shebang like a cloud of nuclear waste. It’s the NHL’s gravest hour that now beckons.

The artistry with which the National Hockey League can foul its own nest is simply wondrous. Rightly, the conventional wisdom holds this venerable but shaky alliance can’t survive a donnybrook comparable to the 2004-05 lockout.

Yet the ingredients of an equally disastrous meltdown thrive. You have Don Fehr, who avowedly earned his stripes as the most strident labor hawk in sports in his 25-year stewardship of the baseball players, now firmly in charge of the too long weakly led and badly served hockey players. And you have the owners, a narrow bunch dominated by Sunbelt entrepreneurs with no roots in the game, more unified, determined, and possibly dumber than ever. If you sense that the die has been cast, you may be on to something, mate.

There’s the further sense that the owners yearn for a mighty clash. On May 16, the first day it was possible under the terms of the current CBA, they served formal notice to the players that they wish to terminate the contract. They had every right to do so, of course, as did the players. But under the old deal they could also have passed, thus deferring any action for another year, which is what the players were more than pleased to do. Choosing to defer when that is an option is always a positive sign of a conciliatory mood in these goofy proceedings.

The owners were flat-out anxious to heave the fat into the fire. The dang fools are aching for a brawl no matter how dangerous the consequences. With Brother Fehr, currently working himself into a fine Bolshevik fettle, in command of the rank and file, be assured they’ll be obliged. That much, mate, you can take to the bank.

Why does it come to this? Why do they court such risk? In the 2004-05 lockout, league-wide financial woes were well documented. In the two seasons prior to that blowup, cumulative losses exceeded $300 million with league revenues less than $1.5 billion. But by this year, revenues had climbed to more than $3.3 billion, ratings were up, and the best network television deals the league has ever had were in the offing. Growth is widespread. The league is healthier. On average, franchise values have climbed five percent per year. Plainly the deal hammered out with so much blood, sweat, and tears in the last crisis is working.

Yes, owners of weak franchises are still being clobbered but they mainly come from regions that have no connection to the game and towns that don’t belong in the league. That’s the problem that begs to be addressed, and to correct it without heavy loss of jobs – which the union will bitterly resist – is a challenge.  But under the dubious guidance of ill-suited Czar Gary Bettman, the owners won’t even try to touch that issue. Instead, they’ll demand a lowered salary cap aimed at obliging the players to finance their folly. Essentially, Bettman would bring down his game to save pet franchises in incompatible places like Phoenix, Tampa, Miami, Nashville, and Columbus. It’s a prescription for disaster. It’s also nuts.

It was against this dreary backdrop that the playoffs inevitably suffered. Hard to believe it was only a year ago that we were celebrating the game’s seeming rejuvenation. Ah, but now we are surely getting a bit provincial.

Hail to the Kings. They are deserved winners! As for the Bruins, how does the mantle of being ex-champs fit?

It’s interesting. The basketball season began with a dumb labor dispute and now the hockey season ends with the promise of another one. You would think we’d be accustomed to this ragtime by now.