Being a fan of the NHL feels much like what I imagine it is like to be Lindsay Lohan’s best friend — you care about her deeply, feel the pain of watching her constantly self-destructing before your eyes.
The NHL very much has this train-wreck element going at this moment — minus an ankle monitor. On Thursday, the NHL rejected the players’ latest offer and talks broke off immediately. There are no immediate plans for the sides to meet again.
But the league is not so far from its day as a cute little redhead, looking all fresh and cuddly in “Parent Trap,” that we have forgotten that version existed. The league had fans. It was on ESPN. It seemed on the verge of a “Mean Girls” breakthrough, with a Tina Fey blessing. It seems crazy to say now, but the NHL was gaining in popularity. It was gaining on the NBA. It was hip.
Now, the NHL hasn’t played a game since June 11. Its October and November games were lost amid labor fighting. Its most popular regular-season game, the Winter Classic, played outdoors on New Year’s Day, has been scrapped as well. And any hope for games being played this season lies with talks getting back on track — and soon.
Hockey will be played. This, I know for sure.
We may see a big labor handshake line next week.
What I am not sure about is if the NHL can get out of its own way long-term. This latest bout of idiocy comes only eight years after the NHL lost the 2004-05 season, the first North American sports league to shut down an entire season because of a labor dispute.
What I also know for sure is that being an NHL fan borders on masochistic; being besties with LiLo probably has less heartache.
The meltdown has been epic, the insistence on Versus (now NBC Sports Network) instead of ESPN, the loss of a year, the obvious inability even with a year lost to reach long-lasting labor peace. This is how the league with the best playoff in sports, the most exciting up-and-down action, the nicest athletes you will ever encounter is teetering on the brink of irrelevance, if it is not already there.
The days of Gary Bettman speaking of the NHL as one of the “four major” sports are dead. The NHL is battling it out with the MLS for the most embarrassing TV ratings.
And as someone who loves the sport, it is painful to behold.
It is like LiLo with the ankle bracelet, repeated cocaine arrests, trips to court, fights with her dad, her mom, her BFF, her lesbian lover. The mug shots and tabloid stories all conspired to turn her from starlet to joke, and it was all her own doing. The league, like LiLo, is killing us with its stupidity. The self-destruction is almost too much to behold and, as months drag on without games, there comes this point where you no longer miss it quite so much.
There are financial realities in this lockout. There is also hyperbole. This is the hockey fiscal cliff, without the threat of sequestration — or any real ramifications at all. About the only thing that will happen if the league continues with the current financial structure is markets like South Florida and Phoenix will lose their teams to places like Quebec and Seattle. The market will correct. It always does. What I no longer believe is that the league is capable of fixing itself.
It can have all-night meetings with strippers and scotch. The two sides can eventually emerge with arms raised and an agreement in hand and talk about how hockey has been saved. They can say whatever they want. I no longer believe them.
This is the third lockout under NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Every time they say, “We’ll fix it this time,” and then waste a lot of time not fixing it. Then, they declare “it’s fixed” until next time when we do this all again. The NHL flushed an entire season. And if that did not fix what is fiscally wrong with hockey, nothing will.
I love the game — the history of the Stanley Cup, the sportsmanship of the handshake line, the beauty of a wrist shot, guys coming back from all kinds of injuries to play. I have never covered anything like the Stanley Cup playoffs, never seen athletes give so much of themselves, rarely enjoy any sport as a fan as much as I do hockey. And this is exactly what it must be like to love LiLo, to be consistently disappointed by a person you love.
Rock bottom for LiLo was being turned down to play porn star Linda Lovelace because she was too erratic. I have no idea what it is for the NHL. You would think it would be this, but apparently it can go lower and probably will.
The problem is I still care, which makes this new round of self-destruction so painful to watch. Maybe, I’ll drown my sorrows with LiLo. I hear she can party.