The No Hockey League

Thursday, February 24, 2005


Written by Scott Piatkowski

Now that the National Hockey League season is officially cancelled (they were just teasing you last weekend; it’s really cancelled), how will Canadians live without hockey?

The simple answer is that we don’t have to. I’ll still be chasing a puck at the Elmira Arena this Wednesday night. And, thousands of games are still going to be played on any given day throughout what would have been the remainder of the NHL season. As my friend and fellow hockey fan Ted Martin wrote in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record last weekend,

There is a lot more exciting hockey being played in our neighbourhood rinks. Take for example a recent Peewee BB provincial playdown series between the Kitchener Lady Rangers and the Guelph Thunder…. Sure, the passes weren't always crisp, the shots weren't always on net, and the plays weren't always executed perfectly. But you could say the same thing about what we saw on Hockey Night in Canada nine Saturdays out of ten. The peewee-playdown games were free from the hooking and holding that mar most NHL games: Neither team played the trap. Nor did either team get more than a penalty or two in any game. And even though the goalies were about the size of the average NHLer's leg pad, the goaltending for both teams was excellent. If you are truly a hockey fan and find yourself missing the NHL, do yourself a favour: Venture down to your local rink to take in a brand of hockey that still really matters.

In other words, it’s not the hockey season – only the National Hockey League season –that has been cancelled.

That said, it will certainly seem odd this April, May and June to see The National starting at 10:00 every night, instead of bouncing around before, between and after playoff games. As well, the kind of revelry that gripped the city of Calgary during the Flames’ improbable playoff run last spring won’t be repeated in any of the six NHL cities this year. And, for the first time since the flu epidemic of 1919, the Stanley Cup will not be awarded (the NHL having assumed de facto ownership of the trophy).

So, how did we get here? Whom do we blame for this mess? Toronto Star columnist Rose DiManno nailed it when she wrote that, “There are no good guys in this mess. Only self-absorbed millionaires versus self-absorbed billionaires. They have done inestimable damage to a game that was already ailing.” But, if I had to choose sides, I’d blame the owners, and their chosen Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Frankly, I think there is just too much money involved in the game, and it’s clouded everyone’s vision. But, as long as there's as much money in the game as there is, I'd rather have it go to the players than the owners (no one pays to watch the owners work). If I thought that the owners would reduce ticket prices, and concession stand prices and souvenir prices, with the money they'd save under their contract proposal, I might have a little more sympathy for their position.

If they hadn't so eagerly sucked up the big expansion fees for bringing the likes of Nashville and Anaheim into the league, they might not be in their so-called difficulty (I just don’t trust their numbers).

Moreover, no one was holding a gun to their head when they signed the player contracts that they signed. The last collective agreement was initially seen as a great victory for the owners, but they systematically poked holes in it by using signing bonuses and front-loaded contracts to get around it. They now want a salary cap because they have no self control. They won't agree to revenue sharing, because the rich teams don't want the rest of the league to be able to match their spending (incidentally, I rejoice every year that the New York Overpaid Rangers miss the playoffs).

At the same time, the players have hardly been blameless. Nearly half of the locked out players are playing in Europe or in minor pro leagues, taking jobs away from people who will never make the NHL or whose NHL playing days are over. If the owners go looking for replacement players next season, they will likely find many takers. This will be because some people can’t resist fulfilling their dreams of playing in the NHL, even as a scab. But, more importantly, by pushing out other players, the players' association hasn't exactly demonstrated a model of solidarity.

But, whatever mistakes the players’ union made, the owners' made mistakes that were ten times worse. Hiring Bettman, who didn't know a butt end from his own butt end when he became Commissioner, was the biggest one of all.

Noam Chomsky has suggested that sports are merely an attempt by elites to keep the masses distracted, instead of concentrating on the important issues of the day. He’s right, but only to a point. There’s nothing wrong with being distracted from time to time, as long as you have the self-awareness to realize that you’re being distracted, and do deal with the aforementioned important issues the rest of the time. In other words, having said my piece on the cancellation of the NHL season, I expect my column to return to more weighty matters next week.


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