Icing's for Cake

No hockey? Oh, what will we do now?

My friends are slow. It's a sad fact, but it's also indisputable. They're not "show up late because they can't get ready" slow. More like "the brain cells they have aren't working too well together" slow.

I've always suspected as much, but I didn't have absolute proof until a group of Philly writer pals blew into town for a game. While we were sitting around drinking beer and catching up, one of them--a big-time columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News who long ago began getting drunk on his own power--was telling me how wrong I've been about Tim Cowlishaw, one of the sports columnists at The Dallas Morning News. He said I've vilified Cowlishaw as a person and a writer--which was true. But he also said that I was wrong to do so, that Cowlishaw is actually a nice guy and a good scribe, too.

I was starting to listen to his argument (or at least the first part of it) when my buddy completely destroyed all of his credibility. The conversation somehow got around to hockey and how much my Daily News guy really likes it and misses it. He said he thought the lockout was unfortunate, not only for hockey freaks like him, but for fans in general. It's a great game, he continued, one full of excitement and wide appeal. That's about when I stopped listening to him altogether.

I could have accepted the fact that hockey junkies miss the game, and maybe there are a few loser fans out there with nothing else to do but lament its absence and pine for its return. But wide appeal? Excitement? Since when?

Admittedly, I'm not a hockey fan. When they were actually playing it, I took casual interest in the sport at best, and only then if it was playoff time. I found the regular season to be a constant bore--a slow-paced, low-scoring game; a kind of soccer on ice that served only to make my SportsCenter viewing experience more maddening because I constantly had to find something else to occupy me while they showed Canucks-Thrashers highlights. Sure, it was fun to cover the Stars a few years ago when they were advancing deep into the postseason, but that was a long time ago, and there's no guarantee that we'll see that success again. Besides, I suspect watching a championship indoor rodeo rider might be thrilling, too, if you like that sort of thing. Hell, there's a niche for just about anything if you cater to a small enough group.

That's really the crux of the issue. Apart from the devoted, hard-core fans, there isn't a huge market for hockey. That's why the NHL's TV ratings are consistently last among the four major pro team sports. Naturally, the junkies miss the game, but if the NHL never came back, would the casual sports fan be that upset? Would you? This is Texas, after all, and we have more important things to worry about--like football and basketball and baseball. And shooting our guns. And, of course, titty dancers.

No, I say good riddance. I say we're better off without the league and its minor distraction. I hope hockey never comes back. And you know what? If I'm really lucky, if things break just right, I might get my wish.

The NHL has spent the last few months trying to hammer out an agreement with the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA), and it's not going well (though there is renewed hope now that they've returned to the bargaining table). At the center of the dispute is the fact that the league maintains it will lose less money this year by not playing than it would if the season started under the old agreement. The NHL says that the average player salary ($1.8 mil) is too high and that it needs to come down to around $1.3 mil. The league says that its players are overcompensated--that they've received more than 70 percent of NHL revenues in recent seasons. That's extremely high. Higher, as it turns out, than the percentage paid to players in other leagues--leagues that actually make money. (Strange how that works out, huh?)

The best part about that is, neither the NHL nor the NHLPA appears ready to cave on lesser points or compromise on bigger points. Despite the fact that they're talking again, the discussions between the two parties have been described in various publications as "acrimonious" and "polarized."

"At the time we make a deal, we'll sit with the union, and we'll sit and decide where we need to go," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told ESPN.com recently. "Do we have enough? If not, we'll come back next year.

"It's not about locking yourself in the room and getting a deal done. We are, to quote myself, speaking two different languages. That's where we find ourselves."

The fact is, the childish, back-and-forth bickering between the NHLPA and the NHL has been far more entertaining than the mind-numbing product they once combined to put on the ice. So why not stay in this state of limbo forever? (I bet the ratings are better right now, too.)

Here's another reason why I think we might be able to get through the year without seeing any hockey at all: In order for the NHL to have a season this year, the league and the NHLPA have to reach an agreement pretty soon. The 103-day lockout of 1994-'95 was resolved by January 11, giving the NHL enough time to string together a 48-game season and playoffs. If we can just hold out a little while longer, they'll be past their drop-dead date and we'll all get a reprieve. (Mercifully, they've already canceled the annual All-Star exhibition.)

"It looks like they're going to need to have something in place in the next week or two," one NHL writer, now enjoying quasi-vacation, told me. "After that, I'm just not sure they'll have enough time to string together an abbreviated season and then the playoffs. I'm not optimistic, though."

Neither are the players. Some 750 NHLers have already signed deals with European or minor league teams. Stars goalie Marty Turco was one of them; he agreed to terms with a Swedish outfit on a month-to-month basis. Turco has the right idea; I hear the bikini team over there is outstanding.

Admittedly, there are things I'll miss about the NHL and the Stars if they never come back--the players are generally nice, and I love the rumors about which hot female celebrity Mike Modano is "entertaining." But on the whole I think it will be better for all of us if the NHL just fades away. Imagine it: a world where the highlights are dominated by dunks and touchdowns, where home runs rule and nobody cares (or even remembers) about icing. Unless it comes on a cake. It's easy to dislike hockey, but who doesn't like cake?

I mean, really, that's just crazy talk--not liking cake.

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