Sides aren't focused on present

So this is it. The mother of all crunch times. The fading, labored breaths of a league hooked to a heart monitor for the last half-year. Judgment Day.

Barring a sizeable miracle, the final shovel-load of dirt will be dropped on the NHL's 2004-05 season before month's end. But how typical -- typically sad, typically infuriating, typically laughable -- that the S.S. NHL and the players' association drift silently toward oblivion, while its passengers scream and point as the iceberg draws closer.

No deadline date to make clear when the season officially will be cancelled. No negotiations, under-the-radar or otherwise, to preserve what's left of the year. And not an ounce of remorse from either side as the whole ridiculous process runs its course.

In a nutshell, that's been the NHL's M.O. as long as Gary Bettman's name has topped the letterhead: we'll get to it when we get to it.

Obstruction? It's on the to-do list, just not at the top. The TV product? All in good time, my pretties. Protecting players by adding rules such as no-touch icing and mandatory visors? Not until the union grieves the dickens out of them and the GMs water them down, bucko. Shootouts? We'll pass for now, thanks. Marketing? Schmarketing.

Not the most pro-active bunch, these people. But what else are we to expect when it is readily apparent the most common character trait between the league and NHLPA is one of entitlement? Indeed, the tenet that one can stick to his principles without fear of consequence, without adequate explanation, without sufficient shame, is central to the actions of both Bettman and Bob Goodenow.

You see it in the way they hang hard to their catchphrases, in the way they condescend during their press conferences, in the ballast that comprises another batch of meaningless press releases. Few businesses seem to revel in toying with the paying customer like the NHL does. But they keep on doing it, then struggle to understand why most Americans would rather tune in to watch full-contact beekeeping than shell out for shinny.

Entitlement means never having to say you're sorry, no matter how many worthless TV contracts, bankruptcies and half-blind players prove how sorry you are. It means setting meetings one day and canceling them the next, blaming the other side the entire time. It means shrugging off the lessons learned from other sports. It means acting like a union when it suits the cause and shrugging off solidarity's shackles when it doesn't. It means demanding a non-market approach on everything but ticket prices. It means you think you're George Clooney and the rest of the world little more than a gaggle of Miss Hawaiian Tropic candidates.

In other words, it makes you think you deserve everything that's coming to you and then some. And while everyone agrees the NHL and players' union have
a lot coming to them, what's coming isn't so good.

What's coming is more than a year's absence from the sports pages the NHL hasn't been completely excised from already. What's coming are replacement players and the ugly, extended fracturing of the NHLPA their presence will trigger. What's coming are corporate advertisers who aren't coming back. What's coming is fewer teams, fewer jobs and an industry devalued beyond anyone's imagination.

The only good thing that's coming? At least one of Goodenow or Bettman will have the perma-smirk wiped from their puss. The unmitigated disaster awaiting the NHL will not only prove to be the legacy of GB/BG, but ultimately the undoing of one or both men. Both are likely to spend the rest of their professional careers as dueling Lady MacBeths, scrubbing madly at stains that can't be cleaned.

Apparently, such a future fails to provide the impetus for urgency as the season's clock ticks toward High Noon. The NHL is about to make history as the only pro sport to cancel a full campaign, but that isn't enough to put a burr in the saddle of anyone powerful enough to reverse the course of a league gone awry. And you wonder why hockey writers are known to enjoy a wobbly pop now and again.

Of course, the real and lasting tragedy in all of this likely won't reveal itself for a number of years, if not decades.

Because the real and lasting effects of a year or more without hockey won't be apparent until the kids -- wholly alienated after receiving more than the daily recommended intake of Vitamin B.S. from GB/BG ­- grow up and take their entertainment dollars and their passion for a pastime elsewhere. By that time, there won't be enough new logos, rule changes and advances in TV technology on earth to bring them back.

It has been said that modern man doesn't live enough "in the moment," that his preoccupation with the past and future usurps his ability to indulge each day's glories. That's certainly true of what's happening in hockey right now: the owners, embittered by past failures, dream of a future free of unions and guaranteed contracts; the players, emboldened by past examples of ownership's soft spine, sneer and spit at the thought of future pastures more yellow than green.

Consequently, neither side is capable of functioning in the here and now -- and because of their leadership deficiencies, there promises to be no here, no now, for a long, long time.

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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