King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NHL to fans: Don't worry! We might save the season. Fans: Yawn. Plus: Ken Burns takes the fun out of Jack Johnson.

Published January 19, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Secret meetings arranged by guys named Trevor are usually a little more intriguing than this.

Trevor Linden, Vancouver Canucks forward and president of the NHL Players Association, organized a meeting Wednesday in an undisclosed location between three representatives each from the locked-out union and the league, not including commissioner Gary Bettman and union executive director Bob Goodenow. The secret meeting's secret agenda: Try to get the talks going again in an effort to save the 2004-05 season.

The two sides didn't meet for three months after the lockout came down in September, then they met twice in a week in mid-December to trade quickly rejected proposals, and haven't met since. Owners are dug in hard to their demand for a salary cap. Players are just as committed to avoiding one. The rhetoric has been hostile from the opening face-off.

Linden's idea is that if the two sides could just get together and talk, without each side's chief, the dialogue might lead to a solution. It's a nice idea and worth a try, but it seems to me that this one's not going to end until one side caves.

Word leaked out Tuesday that the meeting would be held in Chicago. Neither side will bring a new proposal. In December the players offered to roll back salaries 24 percent. The owners rejected that idea out of hand because it didn't include a salary cap, then countered with one that did. Rejected out of hand. Silence descended.

By that I mean silence by the sporting public, which has reacted to news of Wednesday's meeting by saying, "So another thing about Randy Moss ..."

More than half of the schedule has been wiped out, plus the All-Star Game. The owners haven't set a date beyond which the season can't be salvaged. Most observers believe the first week of February would be the latest the season could be restarted if the playoffs were to end before July, which the league has said must happen. I think a shorter season and shorter playoffs could be worked out with some creative thinking, but creative thinking isn't the NHL's long suit.

The last time the NHL owners locked out the players, 10 years ago, the standoff ended Jan. 11 and games resumed Jan. 20. They played a 48-game season and a normal 16-team playoff tournament.

I've often remarked that sports fandom sometimes resembles a bad relationship. If I may quote myself, I said to blogger Paul Katcher, who for some reason interviewed me a couple of years ago, "The one-sidedness of that relationship, between team and fan, is just weird to me. The power dynamic is all out of whack.

"You devote your whole life to the Pittsburgh Steelers, say. You have a shrine to them in your house. You name your kids Franco and Mean Joe. You dress only in black and yellow and never miss a game. And if you suddenly stopped all of that, the Steelers wouldn't even know, much less care."

The NHL lockout is kind of payback for the fans. Hockey keeps saying, "Hang in there, folks! The season's not dead yet! We may be able to save it!" Trevor Linden's secret meeting is the latest of these reassurances.

"I'm pleased there was an overture and I'm hopeful it can lead to serious negotiations and at least progress toward a resolution," NHL lawyer Bill Daly told the Associated Press.

And fans have a two-word response: What. Ever.

The NHL reassuring unworried, uncaring fans that there's still hope to save the season is a little like Wayne's ex-girlfriend in "Wayne's World" telling him, "If you're not careful, you're going to lose me." His answer: "I lost you two months ago. We broke up. Are you mental?"

It's likely the league agreed to the meeting not because it harbors real hope of progress but because it wants to try to get a read on the players' resolve, since it wouldn't be unreasonable to surmise that Linden called for the meeting because the rank and file are getting anxious.

Unlike the fans.

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The Ken Burns template [PERMALINK]

Two weeks ago I mentioned how much I enjoyed "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," the biography of the great champion by Geoffrey Ward. A documentary of the same name, written by Ward and directed by Ken Burns aired on PBS Monday and Tuesday.

If you're interested in the first black heavyweight champ but were kind of bored by the movie, as I was, don't be discouraged from reading either Ward's book or "Papa Jack," an earlier bio by Randy Roberts, who appeared as one of Burns' talking heads.

I generally enjoy Burns' documentaries, but his familiar, somber formula just didn't work on Johnson. All the usual elements were there: the panning over still photos, the twangy, old-timey score -- this time by Wynton Marsalis -- the stolid narration and the peculiar, stuffy writing style.

One example of a pet script device, the chopped-up list capped by the before-they-were-stars anecdote: "There were confrontations in Chattanooga, Chicago and Columbus. In Los Angeles and Norfolk, Pueblo and Philadelphia. In Roanoke and Washington, D.C. On Canal Street in New Orleans, a 10-year-old paperboy named Louis Armstrong was told to run for his life ..."

This method works wonders for somber subjects like the Civil War. But the thing about Jack Johnson is that he was a stone gas, a rockin' good time of a guy. He was a hard-drinking, hard-living, fast-driving, rule-breaking son of a bitch, the baddest man on the planet before that phrase was invented. None of that spirit is able to fight through Burns' -- and Marsalis' -- tasteful sheen.

Roberts and Stanley Crouch try gamely to inject some levity into the proceedings, but they're finally overwhelmed by the Dobro and bull fiddle.

Still, if you get another chance to watch "Unforgivable Blackness," and these things are always rerun and available for rental eventually, it's worth it just for the chance to see the vintage films of Johnson in action. He was something.

Have you ever seen those old-timey photos of 19th century boxers that sometimes hang in bars? You know, hands up, leaning way back? You think, "Why did they pose so funny?" But that's how they fought back then. Johnson was one of the last successful practitioners of at least a modified version of that style, which even in his time was thought to be old-fashioned. Johnson was still champion when Jack Dempsey, fighting out of a crouch that wouldn't look out of place in 2005, began his career.

To watch Johnson calmly pick off the blows of Tommy Burns and Jim Jeffries in his two most famous wins, then tie up his opponent and uncork his devastating uppercut, is to watch an artist at work.

Previous column: I give: Pats all the way

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