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Thanksgiving Day may be D-Day on NHL season; meanwhile, bitterness reigns in negotiation follies

The guessing here is that if the National Hockey League owners and players don’t resolve their hideous labor dispute by Thanksgiving the entire season will get tanked.

If that happens, professional hockey in North America will be irrevocably compromised and the NHL as we have known it will become history.

That’s conjecture, obviously. But you can take it to the bank.
In their remarkable delusion, the owners hold to the tender illusion that hockey fans – so long the unique consumers in the checkered realm of sports commerce with their quaintly intense if almost mindless loyalties – will always be willing to forgive and forget. This time, I think, they are dead wrong.

How do you begin to calculate the impact of a totally wiped-out season? You can’t! How many jobs – and not just those of the players – will simply disappear? That number alone, if it could be precisely calculated, might amaze you.

I believe that if the entire season gets wiped out, two-thirds of the American hockey fan base will go down the drain with it. Along the way, network TV deals, including the landmark two billion dollar NBC contract secured with such desperate effort, will also go down said drain while most local media arrangements will get rendered null and void, and the new NHL Network will go kaput.

Near countless are the lesser yet vital business arrangements in every market that will get trampled, ranging all the way from huge losses incurred when roughly 1,500 dates are scrubbed at the ice rinks of North America to the little hobby stuff – the hats and jerseys and even bubblegum cards– which you may regard as minor but which can really add up.

Obviously even more profoundly damaging would be the horrific impact the fiasco would have on professional hockey’s stature and image, ultimately harming the game at all other levels. One can foresee at least four, and possibly six, franchises not surviving the disaster, or not long surviving the resulting backlash when the anger of the game’s patrons, who have too long been treated like suckers, boils over. And it will.

In Canada, where the game comes close to serving as the essential framework of the entire culture, it would be different. But how much longer can the Canadian game tolerate being dragged down by the American game and dominated by its fickle media and lousy marketing strategies and stupid expansion policies while being led mainly to ruin by Americans – and that would include owners, commissioners, supporting executives, and labor leadership – who have one thing above all in common: They are mainly not hockey people, and too few of them understand this game.

If I were a Canadian hockey-person – certainly an owner, or even just a dumb but ardent fan – I would regard the American domination of the National Hockey League as utterly infuriating and downright intolerable. Might the day come when professional hockey in North America will consist of two entirely separate and rival leagues: one Canadian and one (maybe) just American? One wonders.

Perhaps after the restoration – should there be one – you might see this seemingly odd notion taking shape. Do not be surprised. Canada can stand on its own. Moreover, the game belongs to them, not us.
It’s possible we have already crossed the bloody Rubicon on this mess. That might have come the very moment (on 2 November) that they had to cancel the annual “Mid-Winter Classic” that culminates in the New Year’s Day tilt that has become an international delight. The Classic might be the niftiest gimmick the NHL has come up with since they dreamed up the Stanley Cup playoffs.

In the three years since Boston hosted the thing at Fenway Park, the Classic has blossomed into the NHL’s signature event. Most importantly, it has become an ace of spades with the media, a way of promoting and selling the game beyond anything hitherto conceived. This year it would have matched the Red Wings and Maple Leafs in a clash of hockey’s two best hotbeds, Detroit and Toronto. It would have been the richest and merriest such gala yet, a two-week-long festival of many events over the length of the holidays attracting more than a half million people and massive media attentions. The league stood to profit many millions and the profit for the sport would have been incalculable.

All of that is lost. The plug has been pulled. They had no choice. Preparations were demanding, with rinks to be built at the University of Michigan and the Tigers’ Comerica Park. Deadlines were up. It’s an enormous blow.

So they had to do what they did. But what’s really galling is that in the 15 days after the players’ union swiftly rejected the owners’ alleged take it or leave it “compromise” package, the two sides did not meet nor did they once make contact by phone, e-mail, or carrier pigeon. As the last faint hope of rescuing the thing from utter disaster expired, the combatants peevishly twiddled their thumbs, nursing petty grievances. Talk of the infuriating!

For this, they are all at fault: the rapacious owners led, heaven help us, by our own Jeremy Jacobs and the mercilessly Napoleonic commissioner, Gary Bettman, and the players by their implacably iron-willed union boss, Don Fehr.
After getting slashed, high-sticked, and consistently pummeled by the owners for two generations, the players wanted a true union titan to lead them this time and in the genuinely hawkish Fehr, the old baseball hard-liner and devoted disciple of Marvin Miller, they may have gotten more than they yearned for.

It’s possible the match-up is too hot, too volatile. Clearly, Fehr and Bettman loathe and despise each other. Some say Fehr’s intransigence is scary while another observer has termed Bettman “a toxic commodity” in the process. You may assume it is always this way in these deals, but it doesn’t often get this nasty and end up satisfactorily. Not in sports, not in any labor negotiation.

Those who are following the give and take up close and intensely have begun to worry that the negotiations may be sliding into an impossible abyss. As ESPN’s Scott Burnside has written, “The two sides are so entrenched in their dislike and mistrust of each other they may be powerless to stop it.”

So with all this in mind, it may be a hopeful sign that as the talks tentatively resume neither Fehr nor Bettman will be at the table while it is devoutly to be hoped that Jacobs will have the decency to stay away as well. In at least the initial encounters, Bill Daly, Bettman’s deputy, and Steve Fehr, Don’s lawyer-brother, will do the talking. At least the temperature should be lower. The talks resume just as America goes to vote, which may guarantee few will notice. That may also help.

For clearly this is the last best chance for any kind of real season and the curbing of a runaway disgrace. Should there be a miraculous intervention of common sense and simple humility they would have a fighting chance of getting it done and ratified by Thanksgiving after which they would need at least two weeks to whip the players into shape (talk of any less time for that is crazy) and thereby be ready to go early in December and fully rolling by the holidays, having lost roughly a third of the regular season. It would be possible to start later, although not beyond January. But when does the damage become officially ruinous?

For all the reasons itemized above, any resolution of the madness looks unlikely, if not impossible. But we do not surrender hope casually nor quit without a mighty roar and a last majestic quixotic charge at that indomitable brick wall just ahead. After all, it is hockey we are talking about and we are hockey people.