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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Sinden concerned about NHL

Harry Sinden was pretty sure he'd seen it all. He's lived through every hockey crisis imaginable, but at the ripe age of 72, the Bruins' patriarch remains flabbergasted by the National Hockey League's continued path on the Road to Nowhere.

And, for the first time, he's wondering aloud if the NHL will survive this prolonged labor dispute.

"I'll tell you something," Sinden said. "In the past few days, it's become almost a reality that there are some forces at work that could destroy this league. Now I might be overstating it a little bit, but after all these years of trying to build this game, it's pretty difficult to watch it devastated over one season. It's very depressing."

Sinden was particularly discouraged by the fact the Players Association met in Pebble Beach, Calif., recently and emerged without any resolutions.

"The fact they met at a place like Pebble Beach kind of says it all, doesn't it?" Sinden said with a chuckle. "But nothing comes out of it. Not a damn word. Every time something like that happens, someone will say to me, `Oh, it will be resolved soon.' But it makes me think they don't want to resolve this. Of course, I imagine they think the same thing about us."

The league owners and Players Association representatives met Monday for the first time since March 17, with no tangible progress. But Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs was there from start to finish, and Sinden said he detected a small glimmer of optimism.

"I will say he came out of there feeling perhaps there was some common ground reached for the first time," Sinden said. "Now, he also did say, `I have no idea if the other owners felt that way.' "

The NHL's general managers will meet tomorrow in Detroit to discuss possible rules changes, among them a proposal by the Buffalo Sabres to consider a slightly larger net.

"Ridiculous," Sinden said. "Absolutely ridiculous. What if they decided to improve scoring in the NBA and made the hoop 4 inches bigger in diameter? You don't want to artificially improve scoring. What if the NBA developed a half-court shot that was worth 5 points? You can't do things like that."

Sinden and GM Mike O'Connell have their own ideas about opening up the game. They will propose eliminating the red line and expanding the neutral zone, a novel idea they tested with their minor league franchise in Providence.

"It's a bit avant garde," Sinden said. "I don't know if it will pass. There are so many traditionalists in the game. But I'm going for it, and I'm as traditional as anyone."

For those casual fans trying to grasp the crux of the problem with the NHL, here's one bottom line to consider. According to Sinden, between 12-15 teams will actually lose less money by not playing than if they played a full season. Now the Players Association would quickly counter that NHL teams (like every other professional franchise, by the way) have manipulated those numbers. It believes only two or three franchises are that bad off. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

According to Sinden, the Bruins were in the red last season and would have been again had everything remained status quo, because of "a couple of beatings in arbitration" (that would be the contracts awarded to Joe Thornton and Sergei Gonchar), and a slight shift in strategy.

"We've fought as hard as we could for eight or nine years against the system, but Mike felt for us to keep competitive we had to pay out more money than we brought in," Sinden said. "So we swallowed hard and did it."

Sinden has been warning us for years that this was where the NHL was headed if it continued its free spending. He made sure Boston, for the most part, remained fiscally responsible, and was vilified as one talented player after another left town for greener ($) pastures. Now his dire forecast has come true.

"I hate to say, `I told you so,' " Sinden said. "I don't mind telling me, `I told me so.' And it's not just the newer franchises that are having trouble. Look at Detroit. They got themselves in a position, it appears, that they had to win the Stanley Cup and sell out every game to get out of [the red]. They couldn't do it."

While the Bruins await the fate of their sport, they have been polling season ticket-holders on how they feel about replacement players pulling on the sweater with the spoked B.

"We ran a few focus groups to see what people thought," Sinden said. "I don't believe it was too well-received. I'd hate to see us do that [use replacements]. I don't know how all the other owners feel, but it may be our only business alternative.

"I hate it. I really do. From almost every standpoint, it stinks."

This much we do know: There will be a salary cap of sorts when (if?) play resumes. There could be a shift in revenue sharing, and there have been reports the players are proposing the inclusion of a "franchise player" who would not be included in the team's salary cap figure. Asked about that, Sinden said, "It all depends on how you do it. You can do anything if it's in moderation. The players said they would never -- ever -- agree to a cap. But they would agree if it was $100 million."

The NHL became the first major professional sports league to cancel an entire season. It seems inconceivable it would go two seasons without playing. The pressure is mounting, from within and elsewhere. ESPN boss Mark Shapiro recently noted some of his replacement programming had outrated hockey, and that it was a dangerous trend for the NHL. He also called for less talk and more action on rules changes. Naturally, Shapiro's comments did not sit well with the league.

"I don't blame the networks for not being happy," Sinden said. "When you're down you might expect to get kicked in the head, but not between the legs."

Sinden stands solidly behind commissioner Gary Bettman, who continues to be savaged by players past and present. The latest to pile on was former Bruin Derek Sanderson, who said last Sunday he thought Bettman had "screwed [negotiations] up to a fare-the-well." Countered Sinden, "To blame him is totally unfair. He tried to warn us where we were headed. We paid no attention to him, and now we're paying the price."

There is still plenty of time between now and the 2005-06 season to avoid the unthinkable. Yet Sinden no longer takes comfort in that.

"I've been through lockouts before," he said. "I've been through a strike. Each day, I felt like it was going to be resolved.

"This time, I don't feel that way at all. This thing is drifting further and further away."

Maybe Jacobs is right. Maybe the first step toward reconciliation has been taken. The NHL better hope so. Absence is definitely not making the hockey heart grow fonder.

The only thing worse than having your fans mad at you is having them forget about you entirely.

Jackie MacMullan's e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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