HOCKEYFROWN

And by the way, Elvis is dead, too.

They could have added that Wednesday, when they announced the hockey season was over. Really? Over? How about that? And Florida is hot and fudge is fattening and

Paris Hilton has no talent. All declarations of the obvious. Wednesday was nothing more than Gary Bettman putting a sour face on an already sour story. Over? Wednesday? The truth is, this hockey season

began dying long before that.

It died every empty day of the summer, when the owners said, “Let them come to us,” and the union said, “No, let them come to us.”

It died when training camps were canceled, when

exhibition games were canceled, when season openers became silent nights.

It died when players got out their passports and headed for Europe. It died when a 50-game season

became impossible, when a 40-game season became

impossible, when even playing every team in the league became impossible.

And it died, finally, in a news conference Wednesday afternoon, when Bettman, the NHL commissioner, said, “I have no choice but to cancel the 2004-05 season. This is a sad, regrettable day that all of us wish could have been avoided.”

Excuse me while I throw up.

Know this: If the season is dead, it’s because Gary Bettman wanted it dead. The commissioner – and the owners he represents – won this war with the players as surely as Sitting Bull beat Custer at Little Big Horn. All that’s left is the scalping. And it seems that Bettman won’t be happy until he’s waving those scalps in the air and screaming, “Hear me, oh, Ice Gods, I claim everything!”

Look. The owners wanted a salary cap. They got one. They wanted pay cuts. They got 24 percent. They wanted recognition that the game can’t go on under their greedy watch, because they can’t control their free-agent appetites – fine, they got that, too.

And they’re gonna chuck it all over $6.5 million?

Yzerman still holds out hope

“We weren’t as close as people are speculating,” Bettman said, amid reports that the union had dug in at a $49-million-per-team salary cap while the owners wanted $42.5 million.

Well, I don’t know. That sounds pretty close – considering where they started. Once both sides agree on a cap, the rest is just math, isn’t it? Maybe Bettman figures he’s already gotten union chief Bob Goodenow to fall on his sword, so he’ll wait until it plunges all the way through. Maybe, as Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman suggested, they’ll pull something together in the next 24 hours or so.

If so – and don’t be shocked if it happens – it will be one more Keystone Cop moment for a sport that already has lost immeasurable credibility. Can you imagine the headlines Friday: “Oops! Season Back On!”

Well, why not? This whole thing has been one of those embarrassing labor negotiations where even children can watch grown men behave like, well, children. You go first. No, you go first. We’re not talking. Then we’re not talking. This is good-bye. Oh yeah? This is good-bye, too.

You want to slap both of them. But where? When? How?

Let’s face it: The union has caved. The players, angry as they may be, are apparently willing to redraw the blueprint, live in a smaller house, shrink their rainbows.

And so an agreement will come eventually, whether for an embarrassing sliver of a season, or simply a framework for 2005-06.

And the question being asked is, “Will you come back?”

A sad time for a proud sport

Well, as long as we’re being honest, let’s answer that one, too. Of course you will. Someday, some way, there will be hockey again. And people who love the sport won’t boycott watching it. In time, arenas will fill again, maybe not to capacity, but then, they weren’t at capacity before.

In the meantime, Bettman, with his grim-faced announcement, has simply informed the world that water is wet and candy is sweet. Canceling what’s left of this season is, at this point, a mercy killing. Can you really call 28 games a season? Can you really salute a Stanley Cup champion who exclaims, through sweat and champagne, “We worked so hard for this trophy – ever since March!”

Better to call it off and force hockey to wear the scarlet letter, the first major North American sport to cancel an entire season due to labor strife. The way both sides stalled, whined and pointed fingers, they don’t deserve a better ending than this.

“Through the decades and the generations, we have faced a variety of crises and challenges,” Bettman said. “The league persevered … and will persevere through this one as well – to emerge with a framework for the future – one that is fair to everyone where our players are fairly paid, receiving what we can afford. No more, no less.”

Ah, baloney.

This is all about more, not less. It always is with business. The only thing lessened is the game. The season is dead? Tell us something we didn’t know. It has been dying every night since September, when there was no game wafting over the radio in some kid’s room in Detroit or Grand Rapids or Saskatchewan. It has been dying every morning that former fans flipped to check the basketball scores or the football transactions, because with no hockey they simply tuned to something else.

Sports is where you go to escape the real world, not to find it. The more hockey became a world of salaries and budgets, the more the ice melted beneath it. For now, it is nothing more than a puddle, people tramping through it with their boots. That’s what players and owners should take note of, how quickly people can move on with their lives, and forget a sport altogether.

Breaking news, says Gary Bettman? The season is dead?

What’s his take on the Easter Bunny?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns, go to www.freep.com/index/albom.

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