Fans hardly out in the cold because of NHL's absence

Hockey

February 13, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

The NHL's drop-dead date is looming. The deadline for the owners and players to reach a contract agreement and end their season-long lockout is tonight. The sport could go where no sport had gone before: canceling an entire season because of a labor dispute.

Columnists beg for topics like this. The fish are in the barrel just waiting to be shot.

Yet as the deadline approaches, more riveting issues keep getting in the way. Canseco's going to be on 60 Minutes tonight. Maryland played Duke last night. Karl Malone is about to retire. NBA All-Star weekend and the Daytona 500 are next week. Mickelson, Vijay and Bill Murray are at Pebble Beach. Pitchers and catchers start reporting Tuesday, believe it or not.

Heck, the Super Bowl was only a week ago. Freddie Mitchell still hasn't stopped talking, although it appears that Donovan McNabb has stopped retching.

How far down that list does the NHL rank? A league that isn't playing, a sport that hasn't had a meaningful game (or even a meaningless one) in eight months, players who are scattered around the world, owners and union reps who have met face-to-face no more than a handful of times - seriously, is the sports world supposed to care about it, with everything else that's going on?

There wouldn't even be a reason to write about it here, except to point out that there's no reason to write about it. To be honest, Malone almost knocked this one right off the page. The Mailman last played in the next-to-last game of the 2004 NBA Finals, yet he still has played more recently than the NHL has, by six days. Of course, that's if you don't count him playing phone games with Kobe's wife.

Even if the impossible happens and the warring sides close the yawning chasm between them quickly enough to avert a total shutdown, this lockout will live on as the most disastrous in the sordid history of owner-player battles in this country. And it's fair to say "this country," even though the remaining fans who feel the pain the most are in Canada. They're taking this about as well as we took the '81 baseball strike. They must hate us up there.

They're entitled. The NHL thought it could take over the U.S.A., and it was wrong. Everything it did in trying was wrong, more wrong than a major sports league has ever been.

They didn't blow past the NBA into the No. 3 spot in the hearts of fans here - they saw their window in the mid-1990s when Michael Jordan retired for the first time - and now that they're in free fall, the bottom is nowhere in sight. They've completely alienated their core fans and driven the rest of the populace to total ... nonchalance. They don't miss it. There's nothing there to miss.

It's not even worth the effort for most people to get angry, to curse the owners or players or wish a pox upon both houses, as is the usual strike/lockout custom. Which is too bad, because if people cared enough, they'd discover that this is the rare instance of the owners being completely at fault, solely responsible for their own plight.

Tampa, one of those markets the NHL just had to get into, won the Stanley Cup last June. Who remembers? They've never even played a game at which the Lightning could raise the banner. Their players (at least the ones they could get to come back to town) got their rings in a ceremony in a hotel ballroom. The Yankees and their circus will be in town for spring training this week. Spring practice for the Gators and 'Noles and 'Canes will come soon after. The Buccaneers take over the headlines at NFL draft time in April.

By then, the Cup champions will be lucky to be an afterthought.

It's the same down the road in D.C. Not that the Capitals had anyone hanging on their every move after the disaster of last season, but this was a heck of a time to shut things down. If and when they're back, they'll be second bananas in their own building now that the Wizards are winning hearts again. A few Metro stops away will be the Nationals, bringing baseball back after three decades.

Caps? Yeah, I got one with that cool "W" on it. I know, I'm a traitor. I made that hike up and down I-95 for the Orioles, but Angelos has made such a ... huh? Hockey? What's that?

Go down the list of nouveau hockey hotbeds. Nashville, Miami, Atlanta, San Jose, Raleigh - yes, Raleigh, right in the middle of Tobacco Road. Hard to believe they could concentrate on Duke-UNC on Wednesday with the Carolina Hurricanes' season in limbo.

This weekend offered one last chance for the NHL to save itself. Even if it somehow backs away from the precipice, it might find itself perched on it for eternity, whether it likes it or not. The rest of the sports world has crowded it out.

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