Babbling Bostonian: NHL season cancelled, twice; did you notice?

Right now, the NHL needs one of two things in order to salvage not its respect, but its financial future.

First, the two sides must come to an agreement as soon as possible, and consider starting the 2005-06 season early to avoid a full calendar year without hockey. Real hockey fans will almost definitely forgive and forget, but real hockey junkies are not the fans that the league should be worried about. The fans that the NHL should worry about are the corporate fans, the businesses that buy luxury boxes-the fans and sponsors that bring in the revenue that allows the NHL to exist. The lockout began because of owners’ red numbers, and that shouldn’t be expected to change overnight.

Second, the NHL needs a scandal. I know this is strange to say, but it would be perfect timing for a league in dismay. A steroid scandal, a sex scandal, a bribery scandal; they need something that will give the NHL national attention and press, whether good or bad. They need an image change, and they need it now.

Think back to 1994. Major League Baseball had ostracized its fans because of the strike. Players were upset, owners were upset, and fans were upset. So what happened? Players began using steroids, home run totals increased, and when the game returned in 1995, everything was just a little more exciting. Of course fans were skeptical, but they came back in droves because the product was better and more enjoyable to watch. Fans like excitement, whether it’s legal or not. They want faster skating, more scoring and most importantly, bigger hits. Think rugby on ice. The average sports fan would love to see more violence in hockey.

I’m not trying to say that NHL players should start juicing to get bigger, stronger and faster. I am trying to say that the NHL needs a new appeal: a sexy new image or motto that will catch the eyes of fans and peak the interest of the hockey haters. If that new image is not formed by October of 2005, the owners might as well pack up their offices and cut their losses. The NHL does not have the national or international appeal that the NBA, NFL and MLB have.

Many people would argue that the NHL isn’t even the premier hockey league-it is simply the highest paying hockey league. For basketball, football and baseball players there is not really another option. But as we have seen already this year, NHL players have alternative leagues in Europe. Because hockey players are unlike other professional athletes in that they have other options, they have more leverage than the MLBPA had back in 1995. At this point neither the NHL players nor the owners have a great reason to give in. Owners should have no reason to believe that post-lockout season will be profitable, so why pretend?

All-star weekend

As much as I want to start talking baseball, I’m going to hold off a bit longer. It’s still basketball season, and with only a third of a season left, the NBA playoffs are right around the corner. So what are the big stories of the final 25-30 games?

Will the New Jersey Nets actually come back and win the Atlantic Division? If so, does the number-six seed in the East become the seed no one wants, rather than the seed everyone wants? With a healthy and inspired VC, a refreshed Jason Kidd, and the possible return of Richard Jefferson come playoff time, the N-E-T-S have a chance to make a big splash in the East. Right now, the Celtics hold a one-game lead over the 76ers and a four-game lead over the Nets. But with Danny Ainge at the helm, who knows how many of the current Celtics will actually be on the roster after the trade deadline passes. Philly is extremely dangerous because of that short tattooed guy who runs the show. However, besides AI, Philly’s talent is as low as it’s been in a long time. Granted they have six players averaging eight to 12 points per game, but none of those guys have ever made a big shot in their careers.

The Detroit Pistons finally look like the fundamentally sound, defensive-minded powerhouse that they were last year. After an extremely slow start and the brawl, the Pistons are back at the top of the the Central. Cleveland (two games back) has zero chance of catching the defending champs. Look out Miami.

The Western Conference has a lot of talented players and teams, as well as a lot of phonies. As much as I love offense, I don’t think Seattle has any chance of winning an NBA championship with its current roster. They need a big man, and Reggie Evans is not the answer. Plus, any team with Robert Swift on it should be automatically banned from postseason play. Congratulations to Ray Allen who has earned Vince Carter status for guys who only show up when their future pay check is in question.

Phoenix has six players averaging double figures, including two guys also averaging eight or more rebounds. The problem with the Suns is that they have John Stockton reincarnate running the show, and we all know how successful Stockton was in the postseason. No offense to Steve Nash, but what has he ever won? Additionally, the clock is ticking for Amare Stoudamire to have an Artest-like blow-up.

So who do I like in the West? I like San Antonio and Sacramento. The Spurs have Tim Duncan, and once again the big man has his team at the top of the standings. Although they don’t have the same number of talented players as Phoenix, I can’t bet against Duncan and Tony Parker.

The Kings, as usual, have been through their share of injuries, but are still extremely dangerous as a middle seed. Like the Suns, the Kings have six guys scoring in double figures, but of those six, five of them are capable of making the big shot in crunch time. The nucleus of this team has been playing together for all of the 21st century, and the addition of Cuttino Mobley gives them more consistent offensive production than Doug Christie provided. This could be the year of the Kings, especially if they can avoid the Spurs in the first round.