Fighting back where it belongs

Posted: January 08, 2013

APPARENTLY, Ilya Bryzgalov was right.

Bryz, the Flyers' eccentric and emotive franchise goalie, last week reportedly left his team in Russia in anticipation of an imminent resolution of the NHL lockout.

In typical Bryzgalov style, he decried the veracity of the story, denied saying what he said and forced the reporter to recant.

Except, Bryzgalov was right.

We missed that sort of thing.

The transparent gamesmanship; the cruel retributions; the outlandish stew of the only truly international league in America.

No sport produces a Theater of the Absurd like the organization of Organizations.

Welcome back, puckheads.

We missed this: The league that saves roster spots for fighters; that needs a box to punish illegal play, which generally threatens players' lives; that demands so much physically that it cannot be played for more than 90 seconds at a stretch.

A sport as beautiful as it is vicious; the only sport, really, whose players will play for virtually nothing, as dozens did during the 113 days they were locked out.

As of 5 a.m. Sunday, we didn't need to miss it any more.

We're not bitter.

Even if it was the third stoppage in 18 years. Commissioner Gary Bettman, used to bullying overmatched NHLPA reps, found himself met by an object as immovable and self-promoting as himself: former baseball union czar Donald Fehr.

As usual, neither did his following any favors by dithering until the 11th hour. Each raised his own profile; their intent, really, on every conflict they have created.

No better method to ensure your relevance than to create conflict. Right, Mr. Cheney? Mr. Rumsfeld?

Still, it will not matter.

Hockey fans will not care that the millionaire players beat the multimillionaire owners in the pension battle. How could the fans care as they watch their own pensions get woven into the fabric of golden parachutes of failed and fired CEOs?

Hockey fans will not care that the players ultimately agreed to the 50-50 revenue split - which the owners offered in mid-October. It is a jarring drop from the 57 percent the players got in the old CBA, but a healthy rise from the draconian 43 to 46 percent upon which the owners initially insisted. Acceptance in October would have cost the league about 82 games instead of the 600 or so that cannot be reclaimed.

That included the Winter Classic, the annual New Year's Day circus that the NHL has used to drive revenue, to ruin outdoor-stadium turf and to annoy bowl committees.

Hockey fans will not care that Bettman and Fehr have presided over a combined six work stoppages since 1990; three apiece. Fehr's 1994 strike famously cost baseball that year's World Series and, by association, set an ascending Phillies club back years. The Flyers, an immeasurably more efficient franchise, will not be hindered thus.

Hockey fans will not care that the players are weeks from being in NHL shape. As many as 200 players - 11 of them Flyers - sought paychecks and competition in Europe and Russia. How much good those sojourns wrought remains unknown, but the players came to little harm . . . assuming MVP candidate and former concussion casualty Claude Giroux really is healthy after his neck injury in Germany.

Hockey fans actually might enjoy the condensed auditions of underperforming, overpaid players such as, well, Bryzgalov.

The new CBA allows teams to amnesty two players, a buyout that frees up money for the new, reduced salary cap. For Bryz, these next few months are humongous.

Hockey fans in places like Glens Falls, N.Y., and Trenton, who benefited from a higher level of minor league play, will care. The brand of hockey to which they have access will sink to its natural water line. They are the losers in the wake of the agreement. They are the only losers.

Thousands of arena employees all over North America - who had their Christmases limited and who scrounged for mortgage payments - will have their jobs back.

Hundreds of NHL and team employees who took pay cuts or who were laid off while Fehr and Bettman jousted in New York City like student-council candidates once again will resume their 16-hour days for lousy pay. They will be thrilled, because no one loves the game like the human grist in its heartless mill.

The season starts in earnest in a fortnight and it might run through the start of summer, but the late start is fine. One of the winter leagues should start during the first week of January, anyway.

That would infuse 2 months of doldrums with fresh story lines, until the NCAA Tournament assumes its annual relevance in March.

It would enable the other league to enjoy exclusivity when it starts, too, in the fall. It would add excitement to May, June and even early July, if the playoffs last that long. Baseball is stale by then, and, of course, horse racing is dead.

We'll take hockey this year, but, ideally, basketball would start late. It is a summertime playground sports and a summer Olympic game, anyway. Players would be in shape following the NBA season.

Considering how lousy the Lakers are, how predictable the Heat has become and how injured Andrew Bynum is, it's pleasant to have a diversion other than mediocre playoff football teams and FBS jokes like Kent State vs. Arkansas State . . . God bless Danica Patrick and that black leather jacket.

Go Daddy, to the rink, and buy some tickets.

It's Game On. Just like Bryz said.


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