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?
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.