It’s like this: The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the NHL Players Association and the league is up for renegotiation. The league, led by commissioner Gary Bettman, has decided to lock out the players and play no more hockey – and pay the players no more money – until the union agrees to a new CBA. So just to be clear, there is no strike occurring. In fact, the players have indicated a willingness to play under an extension of the expiring CBA while a new one is negotiated, but Bettman is intent upon extracting major concessions from the players and sees a lockout as the best way to expedite the attainment of his goals. The players feel that they made considerable concessions in the previous CBA, so they are not sympathetic to what they perceive as either A) A naked opportunistic money grab by the owners, or B) A sign that the owners are unable to work together for their own common good and will now try to force the players to subsidize their own bad management.
While I’m not aware of any formal scientific polls on the subject, anecdotal evidence (by which I mean internet postings) seems to indicate that fans and -holics alike substantially favor the players’ position in this matter. I’m sure there’s a certain percentage who favor either the players or management based on their general philosophy about unions, but still, the overwhelming indication is that the hockey public agrees with the players’ position.
I have no doubt that the vast majority of fans and -holics primarily want this dispute to end; they just want the players back on the ice. There’s one big reason why it’s appropriate for us to feel that way: It is crystal clear that we don’t get a vote in the matter. Both sides in this dispute have far greater considerations than worrying about hurting the feelings of Jane Hockey Fan or Jerry Hockeyholic.
On the players’ side, they are acutely aware of how short their careers will be. Even the greatest among them can have their careers put into sudden jeopardy (see Exhibit A: Crosby, Sidney). Furthermore, most of them have dreamed of little but hockey since they were children, so for most of them, Plan B, if they even have a Plan B, is something far less lucrative than being a professional hockey player. So their emphasis must be on maximizing the return on their precious time on NHL ice.
On the owners’ side, there are two main considerations: A) Making lots of money, and B) Winning. It seems that some owners value item A more highly, and some others value item B more highly. The lucky few get to succeed in both A and B, but there is a long tradition in professional sports ownership of owners who have made their millions in other industries, so they can afford to play around with losing money on their sports team. In addressing this inequity, the NHL has conspicuously lagged behind the other professional sports leagues.
Pete Rozelle, as NFL commissioner, achieved a level of profit sharing that some leagues have used as a model, while others (i.e., the NHL) have wrinkled their noses at the thought. Rozelle led the way in getting teams to share revenues, and it helped turn the NFL into the juggernaut it is today. While it hasn’t prevented a few NFL teams from getting into financial trouble, it has helped ensure profitability for most. Another part of Rozelle’s genius was in de-emphasizing the distinction between traditional teams (e.g., Bears, Giants, Packers) and new teams coming over through the NFL/AFL merger (e.g., Raiders, Chiefs, Chargers). The NHL, by comparison, prides itself on such phrases as “Original Six.” Which is all well and good if you’re one of the Original Six, but if you’re not one of them, it automatically suggests that you’re somehow not so special. I’m not saying they should forget the Original Six, but keep those memories in the museum where they belong and try to think as a league. The NFL and the NBA embraced this philosophy as they grew and merged with other leagues in the 60s and 70s. The NHL, to their detriment, has not, and has furthermore tried to pass off this counterproductive philosophy as somehow laudable. “Hockey’s special”… “You don’t understand how hockey is”… these are euphemisms excusing backward thinking.
As you might have inferred by now, I tend to side with the players in this dispute, though it’s hard to be optimistic about their chances for success. My pessimism does not so much come from a feeling that the owners are holding all the cards; heck, there have been plenty of victories by players’ unions over the years, so it can certainly happen. But the circumstances and timing of this dispute seem to favor the owners. First, we are in a time of waning union power in the United States, which emboldens management in all businesses to take a more hard-line approach. More importantly, commissioner Bettman seems to have consolidated the cooperation of the owners to an unprecedented extent. If he can keep enough owners from giving in, he can deliver the goods. In this respect, Bettman becomes a familiar figure from today’s corporate world – someone whose only goal, whose only moral tenet, is delivering the bottom line and being recognized as the one who did it.
Bettman seems to care little about whether the players or the fans perceive him as an insincere tool. No, he doesn’t mind bearing those titles one bit, so long as he can make his bosses happy. They are his only constituents. His true title is Commissioner of the NHL Owners. He serves at their pleasure and I don’t doubt that he wants to be remembered as the man who delivered unprecedented piles of money to them. Period. Anything else is gravy that he’ll happily smile and take credit for, but that sort of gravy is not the real prize he craves.
At the beginning of this essay, I made a distinction between hockey fans and hockeyholics. Here’s a key difference, I think: The hockeyholics will not rest easily until the lockout ends. They may try to amuse themselves with college hockey, minor league hockey, and European leagues, but it will be a restless time for them until the NHL is back on the ice.
For mere hockey fans such as myself, the stakes are not so high. Sure, I’ll be happy when they take the ice again, but I’ll tend to not think about it much. I’ll busy myself with the other athletic joys of the season – college & pro football, the baseball playoffs, even the early stirrings of the basketball season. For that matter, I might go to more movies and watch more documentaries this winter if there’s no hockey. I’m not caught up in the strident arguments that some of the hockeyholics are so fond of brandishing, e.g., “Hockey is the best sport by far!!!!!”; “Those other sports WISH they were as exciting as hockey!!!!!”; etc., etc. I’m not particularly moved by arguments that seek to make objective truths out of subjective, personal opinions. I can get awfully caught up in a LOT of different sports and games. If hockey is the only thing that makes a friend of mine feel that way, then I hope for their sake that this lockout ends soon. I’m not saying my way is better than theirs, but that’s just how it is — and may I add, Vive la Différence!
Finally, I want to make it clear that I’m not going to be one of those jilted fans who swears that they’ve given their last nickel to the NHL. For one thing, I suspect that the vast majority of the people making those statements are going to be right back in the stands in pretty short order. For another thing, I’ve already laid out some bucks to the Chicago Blackhawks for tickets to a January 2013 game vs. the Philadelphia Flyers. That being said, if this ends up being a quickie, abbreviated season, I may not shell out for the NHL Center Ice TV package this time around. Not as a protest, but simply because I’ll be pursuing other amusements.
Commissioner Bettman has essentially admitted publicly that he takes the fans for granted. He sleeps secure in the knowledge that they’ll always come back. Maybe he’s right, or maybe his hard line tactics will do long-term damage to the popularity of the NHL. Frankly, I don’t think he cares, at least not directly. He can live with less fan interest. He can live with losing top players to European leagues if it comes to that. I don’t think he views it as essential that the NHL have the world’s best talent or the world’s best game. He can live with all of those things if he knows he’s delivered a greater profit to his bosses, but he’ll give lip service to the rest of it.
At the other end of the spectrum sits me, Chuck Fan. My wishes are far different from Bettman’s. Here’s what I want: I want the highest quality hockey in the world being played by the teams I root for. For what it’s worth, I’d like to see everyone involved in the business handsomely rewarded for bringing me that level of quality. I recognize that the conflict between labor and management is a never-ending process and that the phrase “labor peace” evokes memories of author Richard Armour’s definition of peace as “brief period of preparation for the next war.”
There are also some things I don’t want: I don’t want to one day realize that the highest quality hockey league is on another continent, because then I may have to pick one of those teams to root for, particularly if my native league wants to pretend they’re still the best when they have no interest in paying for the privilege. And though it’s hard to compare myself to a professional athlete in either abilities or compensation, permit me this: As a working person, I don’t want to see the public accept any old lie or distortion that management wants to throw out there. I aspire to be a little smarter and more empowered than that, and I aspire to live in a world that’s a little smarter and more empowered than that. I donate my passion to sports, not my brain.