By NICK MENDOLA
The Tonawanda News
— The hockey headlines have very little to do with sticks, pucks and ice these days, unless of course you count the rhetorical frozen water the National Hockey League owners and Players Association envision plugging up the love of the game in their opponents' hearts.
The news Thursday is that there is no news. The two sides traded counteroffers Aug. 30 and the two sides have been in recess since then. The Winnipeg Jets publicly acknowledged the elephant in the room with an email to their season ticket holders, a message that must've been met with about as much shock as a spoiled surprise party.
Business is business, but it remains amazing that the two sides are so insulated from the public's barometer. Hockey has made more money thanks to an intelligent television deal with NBC Sports, but there isn't a fan out there who fails to realize what the NHLPA and owners seem willing to overlook: Their sport is miles and miles from its former spot as a Top Four professional sport in America.
Anyone near the Internet, TV or radio knows football is the kingpin and it doesn't take much more than donning a Yankees or Red Sox cap to see the weight still carried by baseball. Hockey doesn't have a Jon Bones Jones or a LeBron James. Heck, argue Manchester United's Wayne Rooney over the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby and chances are that argument would be won. Think that's silly? Go to middle America and see which name gets funnier looks.
"Sidney Crosby? Is that Honey Boo-Boo's real name?"
Some have tried to remove NHL commissioner Gary Bettman from the fray, noting that the long-tenured boss is simply a representative of the owners and — at best — a conduit to the players. This notion couldn't be more wrong. Bettman has not just been involved in two (soon to be three) work stoppages, he's been the central figure. Much like his mentor, NBA boss David Stern, Bettman seems to have no understanding of how egotistical he sounds when he opens his mouth. Unlike Stern, the NHL's boss is remarkably out of touch with his business.
Bettman recently claimed little worry for any to-be-canceled games on account of hockey having "the best fans in the world." Maybe in Canada where their sports reigns from the midgets to the Maple Leafs, but you can only slap American sport fans in the face so many times before they punch you in the mouth (or at least take you to court).
The fact is that Bettman's failures are not simply related to labor stoppages. Rather, the lost time is the icing on his horrendous-looking cake. Of the eight lowest-drawing franchises in terms of home attendance, seven exist directly thanks to Bettman's leadership (the putrid-performing New York Islanders being the exception). Three were expansion markets and four were relocated under his watch.
Yet, with another chance to prove his mettle, Bettman is leading the owners and players into sports oblivion. Speaking as a season ticket holder alone — let alone someone who covers the game I've played since I could walk — it's terribly difficult to invest myself emotionally in a product that may not be there.
Did the Sabres do enough this offseason to make a run at the Cup? I can't honestly answer that considering I'm spending my time thinking about college football, the Bills, the Celtics, Newcastle United and whatever imaginary sport my two-year-old plays that involves clapping Lego blocks together.
We're eight days away from the deadline, Gary. It's just enough time to make up for almost two decades of inarguably poor work. Seize the opportunity.
Contact contributor Nick Mendola via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @nicholasmendola.