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If handled properly, the cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season could be the best thing to happen to professional sports since Jackie Robinson donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform.
That isn't a knock against the sport of hockey, which is an awesome game even if you can't see the puck on television. Despite what the doom-and-gloom hockey scribes are saying, the NHL can resurrect itself, become relevant in the United States and, more importantly, lead other professional sports leagues to the true Promised Land.
The lockout, no matter how painful, has created a wonderful opportunity.
No pain, no gain.
Now that the season is gone and the sport written off, NHL owners and commissioner Gary Bettman need to refocus their efforts, harden their stance and completely re-invent their league. They have nothing to lose now. They might as well address the fundamental issue that has created a significant disconnect between professional athletes and sports fans. That divide is a problem for all the major professional team-sports leagues, including the mighty NFL. Unfortunately, no league has demonstrated the courage to address it.
The NHL can and should. It might be the league's lone hope for relevancy, and it would put the NHL ahead of its competitors.
What's the issue? What's driving the disconnect?
This: Fans don't believe the athletes are playing the games for the right reason. Fans believe athletes play the games for the money, and that winning is at best an afterthought. Sports fans suspect this of all the participants (coaches, owners and executives), but most of their venom is directed toward the athletes they worship.
Fans are the only people in sports who are not in it for the money. Broadcasters, sportswriters, ticket-scalpers, beer vendors and everyone else have a financial stake in the game. Fans show up hoping to see their team win. That's it.
Fans used to believe that the men they idolized showed up to arenas and stadiums with the same goal in mind. Now they know that athletes show up looking for a way to enhance their contract leverage and hit incentive clauses and improve their off-field marketability.
That's why there is so much disrespect bubbling between fans and athletes. Neither side truly believes they're on the same team with the other. They've identified the enemy, and it is us.
There are obvious signs of this disconnect everywhere in the sports landscape. The easiest to read is the ugly brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons fans. The simmering animosity between fan and athlete fuels an overall discontent with the games and the leagues. Fans believe it's all just one big money grab.
In my home base of Kansas City, Chiefs fans are thoroughly convinced that owner Lamar Hunt and team president/general manager Carl Peterson are totally unconcerned with winning a championship. The prevailing sentiment is that Peterson's only job is to hoodwink fans into filling the stadium eight Sundays a year. The Chiefs haven't won a playoff game since 1993. They haven't been to the Super Bowl in 35 years. Chiefs fans listened in amazement as the national media painted Philadelphia Eagles fans as "long suffering" during the buildup to Super Bowl XXXIX.
Philly's football fans don't know suffering if they haven't spent 16 years watching Peterson execute his five-year Super Bowl plan. Last offseason, realizing he had a world-class offense and a low-class defense, Peterson refused to sign any defensive free-agent help. This offseason, the Chiefs have formulated a free-agent shopping plan that mirrors the 2003 signings of Vonnie Holiday, Shawn Barber and Dexter McCleon -- the guys who helped get Greg Robinson canned as defensive coordinator.