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Two Minutes for Stupidity

I once ate dinner in the hills above Sarajevo, when there was still a Yugoslavia, at a party where the host roasted a goat on a spit. The host, an American restaurateur, was the father of hockey player Chris Chelios, and he personally devoured a portion of the main course that I will describe no further because of my high regard for the squeamish.

Well, what happened to that goat was nothing compared to the roasting Chris Chelios gave the other day to Gary Bettman, commissioner of professional hockey. Oozing an astounding amount of vitriol, for which he later apologized, Chelios, a no-holds-barred defenseman for Chicago, said in language that would make a Teamster blush that if he were Bettman, “I’d be worried about my family, about my well-being right now.”

But although I cannot condone such sentiments, bilious as they are, I can almost understand young Chelios’ rage. Like a lot of us, he is exasperated--no, make that mortified--over the most stupendously dunderheaded, self-destructive act of this sporting generation, the imminent lockout of National Hockey League players that follows on the heels of a baseball strike that has alienated one and all, man and boy, woman and girl.

Talk about an image-wrecking, public-relations blunder the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Pee-wee Herman went to an adult movie! Hockey players, fighting for years for something a lot more important than a puck--namely, respect--are about to squander ample amounts of goodwill at a time when nobody is playing baseball, nobody is playing basketball and nobody has a team sport to view on television except for football--and volleyball in bathing suits.

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No one was more peeved at the commish, Bettman, for failing to halt this madness than the volcanic Chelios, who continued, “Some crazed fan or even a player, who knows, might well take it into his own hands and figure if they get him out of the way, this might be settled. You hate to see something like that happen, but he took the job.”

Chris has apparently been to one too many Martin Scorsese movies. Who does he think Bettman fronts for--da mob?

I mean, the guy wants to put the hockey boss on ice.

Yet even a more level-headed colleague, Mike Gartner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has trouble controlling his fury over all this.

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Gartner likes to think of himself as a rational, conscientious elder statesman of hockey, but at 34 he has only so many seasons to go, and like so many in his profession, he has been waiting for hockey to emerge as a multi-national pastime with coast-to-coast television coverage, and that means Miami to San Jose as well as Montreal to Vancouver. So this thing steams him.

No more headlines about strikes and walkouts or skate-outs, Gartner says. “It’s time to put it back in the back room where it belongs, and not on the front page.

“I think people are sick and tired of looking at the front page of their newspapers and seeing labor situations and negotiations and all, first baseball and now this. I know I’m sick of it, and I’m part of the process.”

Truer words were never spoken. There are people I know who wouldn’t spend a penny on a sporting event right now, because they equate everything with greed and nothing with need. The issues at stake are so much larger, but it doesn’t matter because of the timing, which could not be worse. Hockey had a window of opportunity, starting here, starting now, to dominate public attention, to attract first-time callers and to rise and shine while baseball parks stay dark. For once, an October, all to itself. It could have been hockey’s month to remember.

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No wonder Wayne Gretzky also was awash in sadness, shaking his head in discouragement as he intoned what “one man” was doing to hockey, how “one man and one man only” was responsible for what was happening to Gretzky’s favorite sport, that villainous cur being Bettman.

All of which undoubtedly must be causing distress to Bettman, who never dreamed upon accepting this job that the hot-tempered players of hockey would be cursing his name while even the meekest were loath to speak it.

As a P.R. maneuver of their own, the players made sure Thursday that they volunteered for all to hear their complete willingness to begin this season under any circumstances, with or without contracts, hell, with or without sticks or pucks. This is part of the process of which Gartner spoke, endeavoring to control the public spin. If North America needs a villain, then, by gum, the players are more than happy to identify one. And he ain’t one of them.

I have no idea if Gary Bettman has done everything that need be done, or if he appreciates the consequences of this action. All I know is that, like a lot of people, I was looking forward to taking a gander at my new Mighty Ducks, and to my fallen Kings starting fresh, and to Chelios checking the goat cheese out of Gartner, and to Mark Messier slapping a shot at the crazy St. Louis coach, and to Luc Robitaille of the Pittsburgh Penguins bearing down on a goaltender with one man to beat, Marty McSorley. I was primed for some hockey.

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Isn’t anybody playing anything anymore? Can’t we all get along?


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