By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Oct. 5) – Given what I’ve been reading, I believe there’s a lot of wishful thinking about the NHL’s lockout strategy. Many people are still convinced the league will permit stalled negotiations to extend into February – as in 2005 – before pulling the plug on the season. I vehemently disagree. Clearly, the NHL will hold off on cancellation if fruitful talks are underway with the players. The league is not suicidal – it exists to play games and market its product, and even the heinous commissioner knows that one cannot productively happen without the other. But, I am thoroughly convinced the window of opportunity is far-more narrow than it was eight years ago. Based on my conversation with sources in the league, I maintain the following theory: While awaiting a counter-proposal from Donald Fehr, the league is prepared to slash two more blocks of regular-season games – leading up to Thanksgiving in the United States (Nov. 22). At that point, if there is no reasonable movement by the players, Gary Bettman and Co. will cancel the Bridgestone Winter Classic of Jan. 1, quickly followed by the remainder of the 2012-13 schedule. Under no circumstance, given my information, will the league permit entrenchment to continue much beyond calling off the Toronto-Detroit outdoor game. Again, it doesn’t mean the season will be unconditionally canceled in early-December. That will occur only if there is no discernible progress toward an agreement. Fairly or not, the ball is in the players’ court… There is also a notion that the league can simply move forward with its 82-game schedule in the unlikely event of a prompt settlement; in other words, start the regular season on Oct. 25 with the games of Oct. 11 and proceed accordingly. That doesn’t seem plausible. To begin with, nine NHL clubs – Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, New York Rangers, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Colorado – share their arenas with NBA teams; in Los Angeles, the Kings, Lakers and Clippers must juggle dates. And, that doesn’t account for other events – concerts, skating shows, etc. – already in place. Though the NBA season doesn’t begin until Oct. 30, there’s an obvious trickle-down effect that would necessitate a more complicated re-scheduling by the NHL – even with a minimal, two-week postponement. The situation would grow exponentially difficult if more hockey games are shelved and a reduced schedule (less than 82 games) would quickly come into effect, given there is no chance the NHL will play into July…
UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCE WOULD THIS SCENE OCCUR BEYOND JUNE 30, 2013 – PROVIDING THE NHL SEASON CAN BE SALVAGED BY A COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT. HERE, LOS ANGELES KINGS’ CAPTAIN DUSTIN BROWN SKATES WITH THE STANLEY CUP.
At least, the owners and players are maintaining lines of communication. That did not happen in the 2004-05 labor dispute, when talks were put off for weeks and months at a time. No progress will be made until the core issues are addressed, but the potential for such discussion is far greater now than it was eight years ago… They will argue vehemently, but there are two groups of observers in this NHL labor squabble that are disingenuous to the extreme: those that claim they no longer pay attention to the circumstance and – particularly – those who insist they will “never again” watch NHL games. These are ostensibly the same people that make a point of letting others know they do not read an opinionated newspaper columnist when – in fact – engaging in such exercise ranks among their first activity each morning. Fact is, the harder someone works at making a claim, the less likelihood there is of he or she following the claim. It is nothing beyond a cathartic defensive measure, similar to writing an emotional letter that will never be mailed… What a waste of time Leafs TV has become, and I say that with disappointment not malice. Clearly, the digital channel owned and operated by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment exists solely for the dozen or so Leaf games it televises each season. Perhaps, advertising revenue from these games offsets the cost of maintaining the 24-hour cable outlet. Problem is, they account for maybe three percent of programming. The remainder – particularly now, in the midst of a labor dispute – consists of Leaf games in the past and overkill coverage of the American Hockey League Toronto Marlies. The channel actually televised play-by-play coverage of a Marlies training camp scrimmage on Thursday. Heaven knows there is far-greater potential for Leafs TV, were the company to loosen a skimpy budget. In the station’s early years, it produced a live, two-hour talk-show on Sunday mornings – The Reporters – involving members of the hockey media; perfect timing after a Saturday-night game. Sunday-night Leafs Classics – hosted by Joe Bowen or Brian McFarlane and including an ex-Leafs player – were novel and innovative. Today, the station fills a majority of programming by replaying the Classic telecasts; sadly, they have become monotonous and redundant. In-depth interviews of former Leaf players – hosted by Mike Anscombe and cleverly pre-packaged with film and videotape highlights – were also a solid feature in the early years; they, too, were eliminated. It would be credible and refreshing for MLSE to pour some money into its digital channel and bring it up to standard once again. A perfect model is the New York Yankees’ YES Network that features live games and relevant side-programming that truly augments the club. It doesn’t require genius; it does require appropriate financing… I still maintain that once the lockout ends, Roberto Luongo will become a member of the Maple Leafs. Exactly how, I do not know. But, it will happen… Interesting how Ron Wilson has maintained complete silence and anonymity since being fired by the Maple Leafs on Mar. 3. We assume he is living and golfing at his South Carolina residence, and spending copious time with his grand-daughter, Riley. But, we cannot be sure. Has anybody seen or heard from the ex-Leafs coach?… What a splendid opportunity here in Toronto for the Canadian Football League, with the Leafs not playing and the 100th Grey Cup to be held at Rogers Center on Nov. 25. The CFL has produced a wonderful series of commemorative film-features entitled Engraved on a Nation that begins airing this Monday during Canadian Thanksgiving telecasts on TSN of Winnipeg at Montreal and Saskatchewan at Toronto. Still, the CFL has to market itself more aggressively. Though the Buffalo Bills have the potential to be a disaster again this season, we are inundated with commercials for the Seattle-Buffalo NFL regular-season game at Rogers Center on Dec. 16. Such advertising continues to dwarf the CFL’s promotion of the Grey Cup which, I guarantee, will be a far-better attraction… Blame John Farrell, Alex Anthopoulos, injuries or indifference on the field – it doesn’t matter. If the Blue do not become capable, in the immediate future, of playing meaningful baseball games in September, I fear that interest in the team will perilously decline. And, what a shame that would be – particularly for those, like myself, who remember when the club was routinely a contender (1983 to 1993) and a two-time World Series champion. There was a time, in this country, when no baseball fan could imagine the Expos leaving Montreal. But the franchise, today, is thriving in Washington DC. Nothing is impossible… Have to feel for the Los Angeles Kings. I was fortunate to follow the club through all 20 of its playoff games last spring en route to a long-sought championship – its first since joining the NHL in the 1967 expansion. Now, with no hockey, L.A. sports fans can go back to largely ignoring the team. That wasn’t an issue in 1994-95 in New York, when the 103-day owners’ lockout followed the Rangers’ first Stanley Cup triumph in 54 years. Hockey’s following in the Big Apple was able to withstand the loss of momentum. I’m not confident it can happen in southern California, particularly with the Lakers’ off-season acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Kings were scheduled to raise their Stanley Cup banner at Staples Center a week from tonight, before the home opener against New York Rangers. Now, it’s anyone’s guess when that will occur… Here’s hoping the annual Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony next month isn’t marred by the NHL lockout – particularly in this city, where the event takes place, and where the Maple Leafs all-time scoring leader, Mats Sundin, will be enshrined.
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