Above the 49: If lockout persists, NHL must scrap no-contact policy

On Tuesday, for the first time since the NHL lockout began back on Sept. 15, hockey fans had reason to be optimistic after learning the league had made a new offer to the NHL Players' Association which, among other aspects, involved a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue.

Of course, even if the league and the players manage to finally come to their senses and reach an agreement which would put an end to the lockout and salvage a full 82-game schedule, that doesn't mean the labor dispute hasn't already done its damage.

While most of the talk about damage throughout the lockout has centered on financials details - namely how much money the league was losing by not having games on the ice and how much the players were forfeiting in salaries - there has been far less focus on the losses the league has suffered at a human resource level as a result of having no games being played.

At least that was the case until last week when the lockout, or more specifically, the league's self-imposed code of conduct during this current labor dispute, resulted in the league losing one of its more talented reporters after Rich Hammond, who ran the popular blog, chose to pursue a new line of work after butting heads with the NHL on a story he posted on his blog site which featured an interview with Los Angeles Kings forward Kevin Westgarth on Sept. 17 - a story which has since been removed from the site.

The date is significant because it came two days after the NHL locked out their players or, in other words, two days into the period when no team employees are to have contact with their locked-out players.

Hammond, who was previously a hockey writer with the Los Angeles Daily News and is now off to cover USC for the Orange County Register, was employed by the Kings organization even though his arrangement with the club technically gave him no more access than a typical beat reporter.

Hammond isn't the first league employee to be affected by the lockout - several teams around the league in Canada and the United States have cut down work weeks for their staff while others have announced layoffs as a result of the labor strife - but he is seemingly the first and certainly the most high- profile individual to be directly affected by the league's "no-contact" approach when it comes to players. It begs the question about the point of having such a policy.

While we might be able to understand why the league wants to restrict team management from contacting players - though it's hard to imagine how giving players access to their coaches or team facilities would have any significant impact on the on-going negotiations - putting those same restrictions on public relations staffers or website writers just seems pointless.

The NHL might have its concerns about giving players a forum to air their grievances about the league's negotiation tactics, but considering the well- oiled machines that are the PR departments of most of the 30 NHL teams, it's hard to picture one team going rogue and posting a player interview filled with anti-league remarks.

On the other hand, how much would fans in Winnipeg, for example, love to get regular updates on the exploits of their recently signed franchise player Evander Kane in the KHL playing with Dinamo Minsk or fans in any NHL market across the league love to hear stories of how their players are training during this time of uncertainty and finding a way to make a positive out of a negative situation.

On Wednesday, for instance, a number of locked-out players who are currently skating in Vancouver, including several Canucks led by Kevin Bieksa, are participating in a charity hockey game against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, with proceeds from the event going to support three of the Canucks' direct charitable programs - namely Canuck Place Children's Hospice, the Canucks Family Education Centre and the Canucks Autism Network - although you wouldn't know it by visiting the Canucks' official website.

How shielding information about these types of events or other charitable efforts that the locked-out players are engaged in benefits anybody is a question that only commissioner Gary Bettman and the head honchos over at the NHL can answer.

Of course, in an ideal situation, this entire discussion will be moot in a matter of days as soon as the NHL can get its deal done with the Players' Association and finally put an end to this nonsensical lockout.

Barring that, the next-best thing would be to lift the restriction on its no- contact policy on its players at least as far as their respective team websites are concerned.

At the very least, it would go a long way toward showing that perhaps the league and the players are getting closer to finally getting the game back to where it belongs, and that's on the ice in front of the fans.