NHL Lockout: Personal Feud or Working to Better the Game?

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by Joce, Senior Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

While the NHL and the NHLPA are playing a game of chicken, pedal to the metal in a collision course to see who will bail out first, fans, businesses and lower income earners working for those teams are helpless passengers at risk. Worse, they are in a position in which they want nothing to do with while looking to tell someone who cares. But who really cares?

PENTICTON, BC. — On the one side, you have the players who make millions of dollars and, in the eyes of the middle class and with smart investing, should be set for life after playing a couple of seasons. Back in 2004, when they lost an entire season of salary and seeing several players end their career on a sour note, this group gave in on an idea they wanted nothing about: a hard salary cap. Still, there were some concessions on both sides when the owners, with Gary Bettman at the helm, agreed to lower the unrestricted free agency age from 31 to 27, and split the hockey related revenues in favour of the players. In return, not only did the owners get a hard salary cap, they convinced the players to other concessions such as the entry level contracts. It was a game of give and take.

On the other side, you have a very flawed system. I cringe when I read or hear people talk about Gary Bettman representing “the owners.” The commissioner must be holding compromising evidence on many NHL owners as it is inconceivable that they would have willingly allowed a clause in his last contract stating that he only needed eight of the thirty owners on his side to basically do whatever he wants. In truth, Bettman represents a minimum of eight NHL owners in these negotiations… actually seven as the NHL owns the Phoenix Coyotes!

Seeing the now famous pie grow to a record $3.3 billion, the owners now want a bigger piece. You see, when they agreed to the last CBA, they never expected the Canadian dollar to remain as strong as it has for so long. Since a vast majority of the NHL revenues come from Canada, the league (and the players) has greatly benefited from it and that, in spite of mind boggling decisions like allowing the Coyotes to stay in Phoenix without an owner, in spite of losing millions of dollars per season. Worse, they are trying to sell the franchise to a guy who can’t even gather the necessary funds to purchase it. How will Greg Jamison be able to survive if he loses money in the first couple of years? It’s a disaster waiting to happen but the league doesn’t seem to see it that way.

As time goes by in these negotiations and as the possibility to have a season dwindles, we hear and read more and more players clearly showing their frustration, their dissatisfaction and their comments are directed at Gary Bettman. Ian White might have crossed the line when he called the commissioner an idiot, comments that he should have kept out of the public eye. None the less, White said out loud exactly what most people think or even say on a day to day basis. Is Bettman an idiot? I highly doubt it. If anything, he’s likely a very smart man. But that doesn’t mean that what he’s doing to the league he governs is smart and that from a players and a fans’ point of view, he is acting like one.

Shouldn’t the role of a league commissioner be to look after the growth of the product, doing what is best for the game as a whole and not to satisfy his own ego and please a few owners, as powerful and influential they might be? Shouldn’t his role be to ensure that the people he’s serving, the fans and the league’s sponsors, be somewhat happy? Is the best (and only) strategy to resolve collective bargaining agreements to cause work stoppages three times in his reign, including twice in an eight year period after having lost an entire season the last time around? Other professional leagues seem to understand the negative impact that such work stoppages have on their product, so why can’t Gary Bettman see it? Is it remotely possible that it’s because he doesn’t truly care about the game itself? Bettman recently suggested taking a two week hiatus from negotiations. What will this resolve Gary, aside from getting closer to cancelling yet another NHL season? Is that the goal?

Photo: The Canadian Press , The Province

I don’t understand how anyone in their right mind could side with the owners in this conflict. In 2004, a salary cap was needed in order to create parity, to protect NHL owners against… themselves! Fans recognized that, they understood that major changes to the culture of the economics of the game had to be made in order to move forward. They failed. But at least, it was a game of give and take between the two parties. In the last proposal posted by the NHL on their web site, every single point proposed by the owners was about taking things away from the players. Yet, while the NHL doesn’t go as far as calling hockey fans idiots, their comments and actions certainly point to it. When Gary Bettman said that the players weren’t informed of the details of the negotiation, was there a single fan who believed him? It blew back in his face! How many owners are fully informed and can participate in the negotiations, Gary?

And now the recent comments from Bill Daly on the league initiated potential hiatus: “We have made repeated moves in the players’ direction with absolutely no reciprocation. Unfortunately, we have determined we are involved with union leadership that has no genuine interest in reaching an agreement. Regardless of what we propose or how we suggest to compromise the answer is no. At some point you have to say enough is enough.”

Well Bill, what concessions has the league made exactly, or are you simply referring to “improvements” over your initial low-ball offer? Has anyone ever considered the risk of fans and sponsors saying enough is enough?

While some might buy the Kool-Aid served by the NHL, the vast majority of fans and players alike see right through Gary Bettman’s game this time around and that’s where most of their frustration comes from. Fans came back after the last lockout. It doesn’t mean that the same will happen this time as we’re talking about people with feelings and emotions, not cattle. Fans are more educated this time around and most know the difference in theCBA myths versus facts. It is my opinion that the commissioner is wearing the wrong hat in those negotiations by representing a few owners, and he is creating damage which could very well come back to haunt the league well after Bettman is long gone. But does he really care?

What is the solution? Why not name a commissioner who will look after the good of the game, looking after the hockey operations, the growth of the game, TV contracts, expansion, relocation, the day to day operations? One who, seeing that the talks are going nowhere and the damage being done is dramatic, would work with the NHLPA by bringing in a mediator, as this commissioner’s sole and ultimate mandate would be the better of the league? Then if the owners wish, they could appoint Gary Bettman as their representative at the bargaining table, at the same level that Donald Fehr represents the players? Disillusion or reality?

In the meantime, news out of Philadelphia came out that Ed Snider could start siding towards a quick resolution. Snider is the face of the Philadelphia Flyers but the majority owner is Comcast, which also owns NBC, who invested $200 million this year with the NHL. If NBC puts pressure, this could become interesting and you can be sure that the players, with Donald Fehr, are keeping a close eye on this situation. For the record, Snider has vehemently denied the “erroneous” story in a statement released on Saturday expressing his full support of commissioner Bettman.

En français: Lockout: Pour le bien de la ligue ou gains personnels?

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J.D. Lagrange
J.D. is a Senior writer for All Habs as well as Associate-Editor for the French version Le Magazine All Habs, while one of three Administrators of the fan forum Les Fantômes du Forum. He has created the handle Habsterix as a fictional character for the sole purpose of the internet. It is based on the cartoon Asterix of Gaule and his magic potion is his passion for the Montreal Canadiens. How old is he? His close friends will tell you that he’s so old, his back goes out more than he does! He was born when Béliveau lifted the Cup and remembers the days when seeing the Habs winning was not a wish, it was an expectation. For him, writing is a hobby, not a profession. Having moved to beautiful British Columbia in 1992 from his home town of Sherbrooke, Quebec, he started writing mostly in French to keep up his grammar, until non-bilingual BC friends pushed him into starting his own English Blog. His wife will say that he can be stubborn, but she will be the first to recognise that he has great sense of humour. He is always happy to share with you readers his point of views on different topics, and while it is expected that people won’t always agree, respect of opinions and of others is his mission statement. || J.D. est Rédacteur-Adjoint sur Le Magazine All Habs et il est un Rédacteur Principal sur le site anglophone All Habs, tout en étant un des trois Administrateurs du forum de discussion Les Fantômes du Forum. Il a créé le pseudonyme Habstérix comme caractère fictif pour l’internet. Celui-ci est basé sur Astérix de Gaule et sa potion magique est sa passion pour les Canadiens de Montréal. Lorsqu’il est né, Jean Béliveau soulevait la Coupe Stanley et il se rappelle des jours où gagner n’était pas un espoir, mais une attente. Pour lui, écrire est un passe-temps, pas une profession. Ayant déménagé dans la superbe Colombie-Britannique en 1992 en provenance de sa ville natale de Sherbrooke, Québec, il a commencé à écrire en français pour garder sa grammaire, jusqu’à ce que ses amis anglophones ne réussissent à le convaincre d’avoir son blog en anglais. Son épouse vous dira qu’il est têtu, mais elle sera la première à reconnaître son grand sens de l’humour. Il est toujours fier de partager avec vous, lecteurs et lectrices, ses points de vue sur différents sujets, et quoi que les gens ne s’entendent pas toujours sur ceux-ci, le respect des opinions et des autres est son énoncé de mission.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I should add that while Ed Snider’s statement denies the story and qualifies it as erroneous, ask yourself something: The pressure is coming from above, so it’s not his own decision or idea. He could be fined by his good buddy Bettman if the story is true and he doesn’t deny it, for something that might have been leaked.

    It is also important to note that on the day that this Comcast story broke, they announced later in the day that the two sides will be meeting on Monday. Coincidence? Perhaps. I personally don’t think so.

    For the game’s sake, here is hoping that the NHL owners and sponsors are putting pressure on Gary Bettman.

  2. Joce,

    you cant lump all players nor fans into one group, i dont see Bettman as being non-smart or an idiot. He is, unlike the NBA commissioner, supposedly is a nice fellow, and you dont get a $7m+/year gig by being a dumbass.
    You are talking as if an owner’s employee is supposed to act as an independant 3rd party.
    Bottom line, it is the owners right to do as they wish with their entertainment business.
    If the owners wanted to have work stoppages, is irrelevant who their spokesman is at the time, other than he is a very well paid lawyer. And whomever follows Bettman in a few years, will be another well paid lawyer who can spin-it as the owners like and players union and fans will likely bitch about him also for one reason or other.
    Just call me when it is all over, if that is next fall or next week, so be it, none of my business really.

    • Sorry if I wasn’t clear. I didn’t mean to say that Bettman shouldn’t look after the owners’ best interest, but rather that a commissioner’s number one priority should be, in my humble opinion, to look after the growth of the game, and act in the best interest of the game he governs. A third lockout under his term certainly isn’t it, again in my opinion, especially not after a record year in league revenues.

      I am however suggesting that perhaps he should represent the owners (the 7-8 minimum he has managed to put into his contract) and have another person as league commissioner, a Ken Dryden or even a Bryan Burke, someone neutral…

  3. why does hockey game hurt us to know that all thoes owners go out and buy a car that they can’t buy so why do we have to take stoppages when they should no better the that!! they are not kid’s if you can’t buy the toy then don’t buy it!!!!!!

    • That’s a point many agree with. They blame it on sheer market pressure to sign players to those huge contracts and really, I don’t like putting all teams into the same mould here. I can’t blame Nashville for matching the Flyers’ offersheet as they need Weber, especially knowing that they can’t afford Suter.

      The NHL failed to fix its problems in 2004-05 and that’s what it boils down to. Rich teams often bully (if I can borrow the popular expression) the smaller market teams to submission.

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