It is easy to imagine

America without pro

hockey. Look around. We are living it.

The NHL has been shut down for three months. Guess what? Life goes on. Sports go on. Remember when people used to say “football, baseball, basketball and hockey” as if they were four equal slices of pie? Well, ESPN hasn’t lost 25 percent of its content, newspapers haven’t cut 25 percent of their space, and the idea hockey might constitute a large chunk of the U.S. sports stage is now laughable.

The fact is, with the exception of sports talk radio and a few lonely rinkside taverns, you have to search far and wide for anyone who is even complaining that hockey is gone.

“There are plenty of other people who will entertain the audience if you pull yourself out of the entertainment market,” said Red Wings forward Brendan Shanahan.

Shanahan is smart. Trying to be optimistic, he gathered nearly two dozen players, referees, TV executives and hockey analysts in Toronto this week to talk about how to enliven the game once it comes back. He knows this work stoppage is not about getting two signatures on a contract.

At the heart of the NHL’s problems is a more fundamental issue: The product isn’t entertaining enough to be the business everyone needs it to be.

And solving a labor dispute won’t fix that.

Talking but not listening

On Thursday, the NHL Players’ Association made some new proposals to the owners. Of course they were new. The sides hadn’t even spoken since September. This is always the most infuriating part of a work stoppage, the game of chicken leaders play while those who employ them sit around, biting their tongues, silently stewing on the same question: “When already?”

So far, the negotiations could be summed up this way: “If it doesn’t have the words ‘salary cap’ in it, don’t bother booking the hotel.”

Commissioner Gary Bettman says the owners won’t answer the door unless they have “cost certainty.” Sure, it would be nice if all businesses could say this, “We want cost certainty or we’re not operating.” They can’t, because in the real world, you’ve gotta roll with the punches, supplies get pricey, an earthquake knocks out your plant, a competitor moves in across the street.

But pro sports have never been real world, from baseball’s antitrust exemption to the NHL draft, which tells some kid in Russia what team he will be “allowed” to play for.

So the owners want to be protected from their own greed, and the players don’t want to give up that greed because it has made them all rich. The players had said they were willing to give back 10 percent of their current salaries; Thursday, they raised the rollback to 24 percent. That still won’t fly. If the system doesn’t change, that money will come right back as soon as free agents are sprung from the cage.

So the glum truth is this: some form of a salary cap, or no hockey. And for Red Wings fans, that means brace yourselves.

Because your team will never be the same.

The NHL’s brave new structure

Nick Cotsonika, the Free Press’ hockey writer, pointed this out over the weekend. It’s teams like the Wings – with their “sign ’em up, damn the costs” mentality – that make the other owners revolt.

If and when hockey returns, that’s over. “The owners have been talking about a $31-million cap?” Wings center Kris Draper told me this week. “Well, if that were the case, our team would be Curtis Joseph, Nick Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman and maybe me. And that’s it. That’s the whole roster.”

No more Fedorov, Yzerman, Chelios, Lidstrom, Hull, Hasek and Shanahan teams. No more buying Robert Lang with a month to go in the season. A hard cap would mean the team you’ve got is the one you go with, much like the NFL. It also would mean, most likely, fewer guaranteed contracts, which means more guys cut, which means less loyalty to fan favorites, which has long been the Red Wings’ way.

It would be fascinating to hear what Mike Ilitch has to say about this, because he is both an owner and a source of owners’ objections. But Ilitch and the other owners aren’t talking.

And until Thursday, neither was anyone else.

At Shanahan’s summit, TV execs suggested there be more interviews during the game, maybe mike the benches, go behind the scenes. Rules changes were discussed. So were ties and overtime.

But that’s the kind of talk you have when your plants are humming and your smokestacks are billowing. Right now, the padlocks are on the gates. And like a friend in a higher grade, the sport is fading into “whatzisname” status.

“I don’t think hockey is strong enough to miss an entire year,” Shanahan said.

What’s worse: Hockey isn’t strong enough to play an entire year, either.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

He will sign copies of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” at 7:30 tonight at Barnes & Noble in East Lansing, at 11 a.m. Saturday at Borders Express at Somerset Collection in Troy, at 2 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble in Northville, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Barnes & Noble in Royal Oak and at 7:30 p.m. next Friday at Borders in Dearborn.

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