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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

Waiting and Whining

August 1, 2001

According to a recent poll from CNN and Time magazine, Americans believe that their children are more spoiled today than ever before. Two-thirds of those polled also say they spoil their own children, and three-fourths agree that children have fewer chores these days than in the past.

Thank God, maybe this means at least a few kids will be able to afford a hockey ticket this winter.

Yes, while hardly front page material, this poll must bring genuine delight to the face of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Being one of those privileged few with the ability to use the word 'summer' as a verb is usually reason enough to smirk, but no matter where that little leprechaun is right now (Denial, Oklahoma? Oblivious, Wisconsin?), he should assuredly be grinning from ear to ear thanks to this recent data since catering to spoiled children is Bettman's forte, and apparently the future of the league.

Not that such a facial expression would be much of a change for the Commish. For the last few years he's made a living smiling from camera to camera, stammering like a poorly prepared politician, intoning that all is well in the National Hockey League.

Sure it is. In a related story, this column is up for a Pulitzer. Unfortunately, the award will be declined in an effort to draw attention to world hunger.

As the 2001 NHL arbitration hearings begin in Toronto, hockey's financial future will be sliced a little thinner this week when salaries rise yet again. Some contests, like the infamous character demolition that once reduced the Islanders' Tommy Salo to tears, will be contentious. Others will merely be business as usual. One company after another, parading in front of a designated magistrate, claiming that perhaps their most productive employee is hardly the proficient and irreplaceable entity he seems.

If only every industry could feature such a novelty.

"So, Bob, you'd like us to believe that you are instrumental to the successful manufacture of widgets, would you? And you'd like more than a cost-of-living increase based on your 'performance,' you say you've 'earned it'? Well, we hoped it wouldn't come to this, Bob, but since it has we'd like to start with the Nose Picking Incident from 1989. Dave, if you'd hit the lights."

Fortunately for a good deal of the working world, such ironic visions of occupational idiocy can only exist in professional sports, where one day a team can denigrate an athlete's very existence and the next ask him to quite literally put his health and well-being on the line "for the good of the team."

On the surface, arbitration is the perfect way to settle contract disputes. However, in much the same vein as it is with the league as a whole, the problem here lies in execution.

As it stands, arbitration puts a player—someone whose greatest asset at the professional level is many times their heart, desire, and dedication to their team—in a room and tells him two things before a word is ever spoken. One, you're not as valuable to us as you think you are. Two, get back to work.

Yet, it's hard for much of anything the franchise states in such proceedings not to ring hollow when the owners were the ones who started this vicious cycle in the first place.

When the Bruins can find the coin to make Martin Lapointe a $5 million per season commodity, it's easy to see where Jason Allison would get the idea that Boston has another $9 million annually for him. Allison did score nearly forty more points than Lapointe last season, but outside of arbitration such numbers don't matter much any more when it's contract time. Nor does the fact that Boston doesn't have the money Allison seeks, at least, not if they intend to turn a profit next season they don't (though the odds suggest they'll end up in the red either way). But that's not what the next few days are about.

Over the course of the next few days, another of the NHL's flawed attempts at cost-control will be on full display as a number of the most skilled players in the game try to justify a top-dollar raise and NHL franchises cry poor in a market they themselves were driving to dizzying heights only weeks ago.

The teams can't have it both ways, but that doesn't mean they won't try, and—as usual—it will be the fan who foots the bill.

With the nearly $30 million in salary the Colorado Avalanche will pay out to just three players this season, top ticket prices in Denver this year will run between $123.00 and $178.00 per game. Meanwhile, in Washington, the Capitals have decided to afford Jaromir Jagr the old fashion way, by increasing ticket prices 15%; and in the Canadian province of Alberta, the government will be diverting approximately $1.4 million in lottery funds to help the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, two privately owned companies, stay financially afloat.

But all is well. Honestly. Just don't ask for whom.

The National Hockey League can pretend that it is the picture of health all it likes, but as the arbitration hearings unfold, another in the growing laundry list of disconcerting problems confronting the game will take center stage.

Questioning the worth and loyalty of player to his face is not the way to foster team loyalty. Allowing one team to double another's payroll does not create a level playing-field. Ignoring an unchecked rise in player salaries in spite of even remotely equivalent revenue is not the way to ensure long-term financial security for the league, and dropping the whole lot in the lap of the fan at an ever-increasing ticket price is not the way to increase the game's mass appeal.

On second thought, maybe it's a good thing all those children are so spoiled. Because the next time Gary Bettman flashes his vacant smile into a television camera and sells the idea that the game couldn't be better, somebody needs to throw a long over-due tantrum, and few adults seems to be up to the challenge.

Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and gets increasingly frightened the more the NHL assures him to remain calm because all is well. But Brother Karsh also re-transmits professional baseball games without the express written consent of Major League Baseball just to spite The Man, so what does he know.

Back to Karsh's Column List


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