Labor issues threaten to stall NHL's momentum
LOS ANGELES – It was more than two hours before the first puck was scheduled to drop on the first Stanley Cup Final game in Los Angeles in 19 years Monday afternoon, and already Chick Hearn Court had started to look like the corner of Atwater and Rue Sainte-Catherine in Montreal or Edmonton's Whyte Mile.
The scene, one longtime AEG official said as he made his way through it, was even crazier than the surroundings for recent Lakers NBA Finals appearances.
Safe inside Staples Center, Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier was also surveying the NHL's ever-changing landscape.
"The game was quite stagnant for a while," said Messier, who won five Stanley Cups with Edmonton and another with the New York Rangers. "The star players weren't that identifiable."
Rules changes in recent years, Messier said, "have done a great job of getting speed and artistry back in the game."
"The NHL," continued Messier, now a special assistant with the Rangers, "I don't think they could be happier with the way the NHL has gone the last few years."
The question is which direction does the NHL go after the Stanley Cup is over?
The NHL, continuing to build on the momentum created by the 2010 Olympics and the five-ring, prime showcase the Vancouver Games gave the sport, will generate $3.3 billion in revenue this season, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The league drew 21.5 million fans this season and filled 90 percent of its seats during the regular season — more than 102 percent during the Stanley Cup playoffs. In Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, the sport has a pair of young, transcendent superstars. The 2012 playoffs have produced 82 one-goal games and 25 overtime contests, reminding us again why the Stanley Cup is the most demanding and exciting postseason in sports.
Yet the NHL heads into the offseason with a potential labor dispute looming and the league and its players literally on a collision course with the issue of concussions and head shots that already have threatened the careers of players such as Crosby, who make the NHL so compelling.
Then there's the NHL's own history of squandering good fortune.
Not long after Messier in 1994 led the Rangers' to their first Stanley Cup in more than a half-century, a Sports Illustrated cover story blared "Why the NHL's Hot and the NBA's Not."
The league cooled off considerably after a lockout cut the 1994-95 season basically in half. Ten years later, the NHL missed an entire season because of a lockout. The current collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15, and already Bettman is sounding defensive.
"I don't understand both the speculation and the degree of negativity that it connotes considering we, meaning the league and the players association, have yet to have a substantive discussion on what we may each be looking for in collective bargaining," Bettman said.
"If somebody is suggesting it, it's either because there's something in the water, people still have the NBA and NFL on the brain, or they're just looking for news on a slow day. It is nothing more than speculation at this point."
Pretend as Bettman might, there already has been plenty of posturing on both sides.
Hard-line owners want to reduce the players' share of revenues from 57 to 50 percent.
The fact Bettman and his Napoleon complex will sit across the negotiating table from NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, a man whose own ego is as vast as the Canadian prairie, isn't exactly a source of optimism. Even more alarming is the failure of the league to get a handle on the head injury issue under Bettman.
"Though I'm not at liberty to give you the specific numbers, we actually saw a decline, modest decline, in concussions during the 2011-2012 regular season and playoffs," Bettman said.
The emphasis is on modest, which would also describe his presence and leadership on the issue.
Of course, the commissioner has been preoccupied with other matters, including his personal obsession with keeping a franchise in Arizona, with his misguided notion that keeping a team afloat in a suburban Phoenix strip mall is somehow vital to the NHL's future.
Then again, Bettman has always been more focused on the American Sun Belt than the game's roots and past, which leaves the NHL all the more likely to repeat its mistakes as it heads into another uncertain offseason.
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