NHL's blame game

The fact that it has seemed inevitable the NHL would lose the entire season over its labor impasse should in no way lessen the outrage, or temper the anger, now that the deed apparently is about to happen.

According to reports, there will officially be no hockey this season after a Wednesday announcement – no Stanley Cup, no overtime heart stoppers, no Game 7s – and the list of guilty parties is as long as it is damning.

It starts with commissioner Gary Bettman, the most hapless, hopeless executive in sports, who in 13 years in charge of the NHL has succeeded in little more than driving the once-proud league right into the grave.

It moves onto a collection of owners who care little about the game, about the fans, about the tradition – franchise killers such as Bill Wirtz in Chicago who care only about bottom line.

They (and their stooge Bettman) pursued reckless expansion for the sake of franchise fees, never taking time to realize it was a recipe for disaster. They (and their stooge Bettman) priced out families in pursuit of corporations. They (and their stooge Bettman) showed an utter lack of understanding for the sport, allowing neutral-zone traps, oversized goalie equipment and bear-hug defenses to suck the excitement out of the rink.

And it must include the players, who can't be faulted for taking over-valued contracts from naive owners who spent like drunken sailors, but now have to wake up and realize the gravy train is over and a salary cap is necessary.

"I feel bad for the people who love hockey," said Adam Sandler, the movie star who loves hockey, on Friday. "I hope it gets rocking again as soon as possible."

Sandler was at the Super Bowl promoting a football movie – "The Longest Yard" – with co-star Chris Rock, who was also asked about the hockey disaster.

"All of Harlem is in tears," Rock deadpanned. "I remember growing up playing pick-up hockey games. … My dad and I having sticks and pucks. … It was a magical time."

Funny stuff. Telling, too.

As sports in North America continues to thrive and grow to the point where Hollywood must come to the NFL to promote itself, hockey is little more than a punch line, an obsolete joke years in the making.

The fact is there are millions of people who grew up playing pick-up hockey, attending games with their dad and enjoying the rich history of a sport where the athletes literally walk on water.

You wonder if anyone involved with the NHL remembers any of that.

It surely isn't Bettman, who famously never attended an NHL game before the owners hired him to be the marketing whiz who could make them billions of dollars. One of his first moves as commissioner was to eliminate the traditional names of the conferences and divisions (Campbell, Norris, Adams) and replace them with the generic (Eastern, Southeast).

To Bettman, a name such as Clarence Campbell meant nothing. Thus, he seemed to figure, it was nothing.

We should have known the league was doomed right then.

What the NHL has become the last decade is a clutch-and-grab, over-expanded, rivalry-poor shell of itself. Too many arrogant businessmen looking for a buck (or a tax write-off) were brought into the league in place of sportsmen. Too many franchises were put in any outpost with two Winn-Dixies and the expansion fee, regardless of competitive commitment or business realities.

Since the mid-1990s, the NHL's game plan has been simple. The old fans – the core fans and the rock of the league for nearly a century – no longer mattered as the league embarked on the pipe-dream pursuit of new consumers, new pocketbooks and new corporate cash.

The result was Armageddon.

In trying to get bigger, the league got smaller. In trying to draw in the new, the league turned away the old.

By listening to accountants and lawyers and marketing gurus, the NHL essentially no longer exists.

A league that survived wars, cultural changes and Don Cherry's wardrobe is now dead because of the modern meddling of too many owners, executives and agents who never understood, let alone respected, its soul.

There will be no National Hockey League this year.

No Stanley Cup. No overtime heart stoppers. No Game 7s.

A great sport has turned into a Chris Rock joke while the suits continue to point their manicured fingers of blame at each other.