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NHL mess has soured this season-ticket holder

– For 47 years, the Cohn family has had season tickets with the Detroit Red Wings. If they hadn’t already been paid for, I would not be getting tickets this season.

I’m fed up with the NHL, which takes my money for granted.

The NHL – commissioner, owners and players – has no common sense when it comes to paying back fans who have remained loyal through the decades. It just drives the sport deep into obscurity with professional tennis, Arena Football and Lindsay Lohan’s career.

In 1994-95, a lockout cost NHL fans nearly half the season, leaving us with no interconference games and an asterisked Stanley Cup Finals between the New Jersey Devils and the Red Wings. Another lockout cost us the entire 2004-05 season.

From that, the NHL never really recovered. There were promises from players and owners they would never again come close to euthanizing the game; they would instead make it more accessible to fans and easier to understand.

In some respects, they succeeded. Thanks to high-definition TV, people can more easily see the puck. Microphones go further than ever before, even in front of Bruce Boudreau’s profane mouth during games. We now have the Winter Classic. Social media has connected players and fans.

But, mostly, the NHL has failed. The decision to eschew an offer from ESPN to go to Versus (now NBC SportsNetwork) for most of its televised games sacrificed exposure, in favor of money. While we can debate the merits of physical play, the lack of hitting and fighting has turned off many fans. The product is watered down with – apologies to Sidney Crosby – no transcendent stars.

It’s true that sports fans are accustomed to lockout lingo, since work stoppages have affected other sports in recent years. But the NFL, NBA and MLB never were in danger of losing their identity or existence because of a collective bargaining agreement.

In the eyes of many – those who now refer to the “three major sports,” not “the four” – hockey has already bludgeoned itself beyond repair. But the NHL’s owners and players look at their own $3.3 billion industry and think it’s invulnerable. The owners want a bigger share of league revenue. The players want to maximize earnings by limiting long-term contracts. It’s as simple as that. But the sides can’t comprehend the imperativeness of settling this before the Sept. 15 lockout deadline.

“This time, we know going in that a lockout won’t kill the game,” Gord Stellick, former general manager of the Maple Leafs, scarily said in the Toronto Sun. “We know the players aren’t as militant … and we know a lot of NHL people think games in October and November are for the dogs and can be compressed later. It won’t be the end of the world if a lockout starts.”

In these tough economic times, it’s astounding that the NHL would believe fans would be OK giving up their savings to feed a squabble, especially when so many franchises are in poor shape (like ownerless Phoenix) and so many players overpaid (Toronto’s Tim Connolly got $5.5 million for 36 points in 70 games last season).

But the players are led by Donald Fehr, who guided the baseball players through the 1994-95 strike and subsequent cancellation of the World Series, while commissioner Gary Bettman should know better by now.

I have little doubt there will be a lockout again, and I’m not going to debate who is right or wrong in the CBA negotiations. The point is survival of the league; the NHL is being myopic. If hard-core, lifelong fans like me have had enough, maybe it deserves what it gets.

Justin A. Cohn is a writer for The Journal Gazette and has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1997. He can be reached by email jcohn@jg.net; phone, 461-8429; or fax 461-8648.

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