Expect 60-Game Season Starting Jan. 1

By HOWARD BERGER

LOS ANGELES (Aug. 10) – Okay, I’ll be the first to admit it: I got duped; sucked in by the polite banter and frequency of negotiation. But, the blinders are off today.

This, from a hockey executive whose name is familiar to any person with even casual interest in the sport: “Forget about watching the NHL until the new year. There is virtually no chance our league will open for business until Jan. 1. Detroit and Toronto will play the first game of the season, outdoors, in Ann Arbor, Mich. You can pretty much expect that a 60-game schedule will follow with the current playoff structure of four rounds. That’s the best-case scenario right now. I can’t imagine our league starting up at any point in October, November or December.”

So, there you have it. Perhaps it required commissioner Gary Bettman to state the obvious: that the NHL owners for whom he works will no longer conduct business under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement – the one supposedly wrung from the players’ blood seven years ago. It now makes total sense why the league rolled over so uncharacteristically on Jan. 7 of this year, claiming it would not press the issue on a perfectly logical re-alignment plan – approved by a 26-4 landslide  – “because the Players Association won’t agree to the new format.”

Now, there’s a hot one. Imagine the Bettman administration wimping out on such a prominent, compelling matter. The explanation for the brush-off is obvious: Why go to war over alignment minutiae until there’s a reason to play games?

You can be certain the NHL will implement its divisional set-up before the arena doors open – as merely one part of an economic structure that will bring the players to their knees once again. That is no slight toward the NHLPA membership or its proven, battle-hardened leader. It’s just that players want to play – understanding that a hockey season annihilated by labor discord is the rough equivalent of eight years lost by a convenience store owner.

That ratio may be slightly lower in baseball; it didn’t stop the players – led by Donald Fehr – from striking in August 1994, a move that forced cancellation of the playoffs and World Series for the first and only time. Fehr has no-such bullet in his arsenal as head of the NHLPA… and the owners know it.

ALL BUT ASSUREDLY THE LAST SECOND OF HOCKEY TO BE PLAYED IN 2012: JONATHAN QUICK, DREW DOUGHTY AND COLIN FRASER ACKNOWLEDGING FINAL BUZZER OF GAME 6 AT STAPLES CENTER ON JUNE 11 AND THE LOS ANGELES KINGS FIRST STANLEY CUP TITLE.

In the end, these interruptions prove to be nonsensical and of no lasting value; witness the bullheaded quest for a salary cap in 2004-05 that still hasn’t been able to save the NHL’s wacky proprietors from one another. But, the players always have more at stake – as evidenced by the internal strife in Bob Goodenow’s alliance that brought about a structural collapse and allowed hockey to start up again in 2005-06. The owners are either obscenely rich as a result of the sport, or they lose way too much money to bother fretting about locked doors. They can bide their time far-more proficiently than the athletes they employ – whose average tenure is less than half-a-decade.

As a group, these individuals recognize that hockey is too-much of a habit in the seven Canadian markets, and is currently arena-proof in such U.S. cities as Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minnesota, Los Angeles and San Jose (with Buffalo, Detroit and St. Louis not far behind).

Offending the only throng that matters – the paying public – is of no concern to any person on Avenue of the Americas. The commissioner and his henchmen pompously understand that hockey fans will come crawling back, no matter the indignity foisted upon them. It happened in 2005 and it will happen in 2013. The owners will continue to strong-arm the players… because they can.

Consequently, the final NHL game of 2012 has already been played: at the Staples Center here in Los Angeles on June 11. There is no evidence that Bettman said “see you in 2013” upon presenting the Stanley Cup to Kings captain Dustin Brown. But, the commish – had he done so – would not have been barking up a tree.

So, remember where you read it: a 60-game schedule – at best – coinciding with the NHL/NBC national TV arrangement and the Bridgestone Winter Classic.

Nary a puck will be dropped beforehand.

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