Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 6, 2011

NHL Faces Distractions; NBA Faces Destruction

As the number of daylight hours start to wane and temperatures fall the focus of many fans would normally be turning to our two great arena sports. But this year both hockey and basketball are beset by serious distractions from the action on the rink or court.

With games in Boston and Vancouver, the two cities whose teams met in last June’s Stanley Cup Finals, as well as one in Toronto, the NHL began a new season Thursday evening. For Commissioner Gary Bettman, the games likely couldn’t begin soon enough. A rough off-season for the league began even as Boston was blanking Vancouver 4-0 in the 7th game of the finals to win the Cup. Before the Cup presentation ceremony could begin, riots were already in progress on the streets of Vancouver. Over a period of four hours millions of dollars of damage was done before police could bring the violence under control.

Over the summer 27-year old Rick Rypien of the Winnipeg Jets and 35-year old recently retired Wade Belak both committed suicide. Their deaths followed that of 28-year old Derek Boogard of the New York Rangers last May. All three players were enforcers, paid as much for what they could do with their fists as with their sticks. While the circumstances of each case are unique, everyone in the NHL was left to wonder whether the brutal nature of their time on the ice in any way contributed to their deaths at a young age.

The question comes at a time when all major sports are wrestling with the effects of head trauma on players. It’s an especially difficult issue for the NHL, which must balance the hard-hitting, often violent nature of the game with the need to protect players. The league has established a new department of player safety under the direction of Brendan Shanahan, a former player who was suspended more than a dozen times during his 21-year career. During the pre-season Shanahan issued nine suspensions and fines, and was generally praised for his consistent application of new rules governing boarding, hits to the head and other dangerous checks.

Meanwhile on Monday the Pittsburgh Penguins placed star Sidney Crosby on injured reserve, meaning he cannot play before the middle of the month. The reality is that no one knows when Crosby will return, or how he will perform when he does. The face of the NHL, the youngest captain to ever hoist the Cup, the player who scored the gold-medal winning goal for Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics, Crosby has not played since suffering a concussion last January.

As if riots, suicides and the absence of the league’s top player weren’t bad enough, all of professional hockey was shocked last month by the crash of a Russian charter flight that wiped out one of the country’s best known teams. Among the more than 40 dead were seven who had NHL experience.

Still, after all of that, they skated in earnest once again on Thursday; and nowhere were fans happier than in Boston. It was standing room only at a raucous TD Garden on Causeway Street as the current Bruins were joined by their gray-haired brethren from the 1972 team, Boston’s last championship squad. Together the young and the old raised the banner commemorating the Bruins’ sixth Stanley Cup into the rafters, before facing off in the season opener against the Philadelphia Flyers.

While the NHL has its share of issues, at least Gary Bettman has the luxury of knowing that his league is in business. NBA commissioner David Stern isn’t nearly so lucky. Since basketball’s lockout began on July 1st, the widespread assumption has been that the NBA would lose at least a part of its 2011-12 regular season. On Tuesday, that assumption appeared well-founded when a last-ditch negotiating session collapsed. The stalemate led Stern, who had earlier announced that training camps would not open on time, to cancel the league’s pre-season schedule. Cancellation of at least the first two weeks of the regular season is expected to come on Monday.

As is always the case with collective bargaining disputes in pro sports, it’s hard for most fans to find favor with either side. Billionaire owners and millionaire players argue over how to split a $4 billion pie while the paying customers whose purchase of tickets, concessions, seat licenses and all the rest make the pie in the first place are left out in the cold.

Most reports place the two sides $240 million apart, so it’s no surprise that a number of players are making contingency plans to sign short-term contracts with European or Asian teams. Meanwhile employees of the league’s franchises are facing layoffs. Directly affected along with ticket sellers and ushers will be everyone from restaurant employees to parking lot attendants who work in the neighborhoods surrounding the league’s arenas. This is especially true in places like Memphis, Salt Lake City, Portland, and Cleveland; cities that don’t also have an NHL franchise sharing the sports complex. None of these folks will be jetting off to Italy or China for some interim employment.

The NHL has its issues. But as he faces the prospect of a season on the brink, it’s a sure bet that David Stern would gladly trade places with Gary Bettman.

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