Finally, in what’s been nothing short of a soap opera of a year, we see something normal happen.  Team Canada goes undefeated and wins the World Cup with a perfect 6-0 record.  Just another day at the office, and a well deserved victory.  Many congratulations are in order.

I must digress, though, as proud as I am for the Canadians, for hockey, and for my heritage, teams like Finland, the Czech Republic, and to a certain extent even the U.S.A. all played very well and definitely deserve honorable mention.  We were treated to some very entertaining hockey the past two weeks, and now it’s all over.  And that’s the toughest part of all.  As much as I enjoyed watching the World Cup games, a dark cloud of gloom was cast over the entire tournament and hangs over every arena today, and to say the least, going into tomorrow I am very disappointed.

This leads me into the $1.8 billion question: now what?  Furthermore, how dare the NHL rain on my parade as I write my 50th installment of this column?

As of this writing, talks between the NHL and NHLPA are at a stalemate, with representatives from both sides agreeing to disagree.  The league says the only way a new collective bargaining agreement will get ironed out is if both sides can agree on a system which will enable “cost certainty”.  The union says cost certainty translates into a salary cap, something they simply won’t accept even if hell freezes over.  Ignorance is bliss it would seem.

At this stage two things are evident:  1) Barring a miracle of epic proportions, the 2004-05 season won’t happen.  2) NHL players won’t suit up for the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, if this whole labor mess isn’t sorted out by January 2005.

The look of disgust on NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s face and his folded arms expression as Canada celebrated a World Cup victory said it all.  Bettman’s right hand man Bill Daly was left alone to talk live on Hockey Night In Canada and apologize profusely to the fans, stating “we shouldn’t be where we are”.

So why are we where we are?  Who dropped the proverbial puck at the wrong end of the rink?

It’s a question even the greatest player to ever lace up the skates can’t answer.  When posed the question as to what he would do to fix the situation, Wayne Gretzky himself said he wouldn’t know where to start, that “this is not an issue Wayne Gretzky alone can fix”.

Hall of fame defenseman Bobby Orr had some very candid comments about the whole situation.  “I can't believe that the two sides can't get together and do a fair deal.  I'm disgusted by what's going on.  It's (the season) not going to happen.”

“From what I heard this morning, they haven't been negotiating and that's ridiculous. This is a great game, and with a lockout it's going to be hurt so badly. It's awful.  This isn't about one side winning over the other. It's about the game winning.  Bob (Goodenow) and Gary (Bettman) should lock themselves in a room and stay there until they get something done.”

So what is the position of both sides on the eve of yet another lockout?

The commissioner, speaking in plain dollars and cents, portrayed a league operating at a loss of $224 million US last season, and would like for everybody to believe this was an improvement over last year.

“The NHL has lost $1.8 billion over the 10 years of the existing collective bargaining agreement”, Bettman said.  “We're out of time, we're out of gas.  It's time to make it right.''

Bob Goodenow obviously doesn’t agree with the commissioner’s sentiments.  “Posturing”, “ridiculous”, “not true at all”, “disingenuous”, not to mention a very defensive “come on”, were just some of his comments.

“Yes, players do make a lot of money”, he told reporters in Toronto.  “Players deserve what the owners decide that they're worth.  The salary cap is a mechanism whereby the owners would pay the players less than they otherwise would receive.”

In response to criticism of the union’s unwillingness to negotiate?:  “The players had offered significant concessions, as far back as 15 months ago”, he said.  Bettman went so far as to call it denial.

Goodenow’s response: “That's certainly not denial. That's saying we've got some issues and we're prepared to help work with you to approach them in this fashion. And what we got back was salary cap, salary cap, salary cap.”

So clearly both sides have some work to do and have had over five years to get it done, but still insist on remaining mum on the main issues.  At the rate they’re going, it could be five more years before we see the NHL play again.  Already skating on thin ice, this could be the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back.

So now, we await a new deal, which means there will be no NHL hockey in October.  Management for all 30 arenas can go ahead and schedule alternate events for at least the next 30 days.  At this stage there is no set in stone drop dead date to save this season, but all indications are we could lose the season altogether, which will mean we won’t see the Stanley Cup awarded for the first time since 1919 when an influenza epidemic forced the cancellation of the final series between Montreal and Seattle.

Gary Bettman in February 2004 stated “If we don’t fix this, I want you to hold me accountable”.

Believe you me Mr. Bettman, we will, you better believe we will, and I’ll tell you all something else: you better believe this hockey columnist won’t sit back and wait for the NHL to clean their house.  This is now strike two, and as we all know, three strikes and you’re out.

Stay tuned for more pucks as a review of NHL 2005 and NHL 2K5 are both forthcoming, among other things.  What the NHL doesn’t know (and at this stage don’t seem to care) is in the privacy of my own office, hockey is open for business, and there is a man who has obliterated all of the NHL records, including the ones Gretzky set.  His name is Adam Hill.


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