NHL killing itself with needless lockout

Alienated revenue sources could dry up if owners such as Wirtz don't force labor accord soon

Much to my surprise, I killed an hour this week glued to the TV watching Russians skate.

One of them was Alex Ovechkin, one of the world's most skilled hockey players who makes you worry you will miss something if you change channels. So I didn't, rewarded when Ovechkin capitalized on a goalie mistake for Dynamo Moscow's only goal in a 1-0 victory over Lev Prague in an oddly irresistible Kontinental Hockey League game.

The KHL: History Will Be Made, right? Thank you, Ovi and ESPN, for giving me a hockey fix the NHL stubbornly refuses to provide.

Day 26 of the lockout came and went Thursday, the day the NHL season was supposed to begin, with more meetings that failed to generate optimism. To this point, noise from both sides of the labor dispute has been as easy to ignore as music in an elevator. But after Saturday night in Chicago, where the Blackhawks were scheduled to open their season at the United Center, expect more people to reach the conclusion I did sometime between Ovechkin's goal and the NHLPA's last update.

I already miss hockey more than I thought.

In Chicago, there is more to miss now. The entire Blackhawks culture has changed since the last NHL lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season. Back then, many Chicagoans in the marketplace truly didn't know what they were missing because Hawks home games weren't televised yet — and they weren't consistently good.

Canceling 82 games didn't mean ruining 82 nights for more than a small percentage of die-hards. The Hawks ranked 27th in attendance in 2003-04 and 29th in 2005-06. They were part of Chicago's winter sports soundtrack hardest to hear.

Not anymore. Since the 2007 resurgence that began when Rocky Wirtz took over for his late father, Bill Wirtz, televised Hawks home games have found a comfortable spot in our living rooms and the city's consciousness. Chants of "Rocky! Rocky!" break out during playoff games. The Hawks have led the NHL in attendance four straight seasons.

Now, the void will be more noticeable and the frustration could fester. Indifference over an NHL lockout average fans cannot accept could develop into animosity.

Money might not be the only thing Wirtz loses. The longer this work stoppage goes on, the more uncomfortable Rocky might find sitting in his usual spot among the masses when the games resume. If the Hawks don't start until January — an optimistic expectation — how will the crowd react at the UC the first time the Blackhawks owner's image appears on the Jumbotron? A Wirtz-case scenario: He gets booed for letting NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stop the momentum the Blackhawks had built.

Say goodbye to goodwill at 1901 W. Madison? Hawks fans already figured to let GM Stan Bowman have it for an offseason of inactivity but have the days of being at odds with ownership returned? Wirtz still has time to affect those answers.

As much as Bettman has confirmed himself as the worst commissioner in sports during this lockout, he works for the owners. They cannot be absolved of responsibility for the rinks staying empty. Using whatever power they can wield, Wirtz and other major-market owners must find a way to get through to Bettman to find middle ground that he seems unwilling to seek. You would think a commissioner who has presided over three work stoppages would be better for the experience. Bettman isn't.

The league initially proposed players go from taking 57 percent of hockey-related revenue under the old collective-bargaining agreement to 43 percent. That's drastic. Players indeed likely will have to settle for accepting less than 50 percent but Bettman's inflexible opening offer alienated the NHLPA enough to establish a sticking point more than starting point.

The NHLPA countered with an offer seeking $1.8 billion worth of salaries, the same amount owners paid out last season. They figure to bend more because, in spite of the league's overall prosperity, Forbes reported that 18 NHL teams lost money in 2010-11. Parts of a system remain broke in a league that gives too much power to small-market teams.

Players agreed to a salary cap and 24 percent pay cut in 2004 in exchange for 57 percent of league revenue. Since the last CBA, the league has enjoyed seven straight seasons of increased revenue, generating a record $3.3 billion last year. The NHL signed a 10-year, $2 billion TV contract with NBC. All that increased popularity hangs in the balance with each passing day.

Even players know the NHL will win this. Only Bettman, with pressure applied by owners like Wirtz with much to lose, can determine by how much.

And how long this lasts.

Here's hoping it ends before I learn the roster of Metallurg Magnitogorsk.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

CHICAGO

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