Several weeks ago, before this mess of a lockout actually came to pass (though it was easy to predict…) I said in this space that I would not be commenting on the proceedings. Looking back at some of the columns here at VLM over the past couple of months, it would appear that I—though not by design—lied. I have, in fact, posted on this subject far too much. I have not followed my own advice with regard to ignoring this entire fiasco.
In fairness, when you write daily about hockey, it’s difficult not to come back to this subject. Not because we all “need” NHL hockey (we don’t, though unfortunately many individuals and small business people are being damaged financially by the impact of the lockout). And it’s not that there is necessarily something new or terribly insightful to say about the situation (though posters here have presented some outstanding ideas—and didn’t Sydney Crosby say the other day that he was hoping some new ideas might shine through and break the logjam?). No, it may simply be that people are drawn to disasters. And this is an unmitigated disaster, with the two sides on different planets when it comes to how to move forward and share the multi-billion dollar pie.
So without any science or order to this, some all-over-the-map thoughts on where we are - and aren’t - in this ongoing NHL theatrical production…
- As much as I appreciate there has to be a rhyme and reason for how and when (and why) negotiations occur in any disagreement, given that I thought this was important to both parties, why have we not seen any old-time marathon bargaining sessions? If you really want to hammer something out and “save the season”, don’t you stop playing games at some point, acknowledge you have huge philosophical (and practical) issues, but still hit your heads together until you start to compromise and make progress? I want to hear that these guys, and I mean all the major “players” in this drama, from Bettman and Fehr to real NHL’ers—and yes, the blood-sucking lawyers, if necessary—have exhausted every old idea, new idea and everything in-between for 72 hours straight while eating pizza, smoking and drinking beer (or a spirit of their preference...). Just do it. At least try and see if fatigue (if nothing else) moves the needle toward less greed—and also toward common sense.
- As much as most of us loathe the owners in many ways, why can’t we concede that these guys, who admittedly can’t help themselves, it seems, are truly between a rock and a hard place? By this I mean the “C” word is always in front of them: collusion. If common sense could prevail and the owners simply had the authority to band together and say they were going to stop handing out crazy contracts, they could surely run their businesses without fear of losing money. Please tell me they could.
- We as fans need to recognize that NHL owners are competitive people, in most cases. They want to win. Their fans want them to acquire and hire the best players possible and pay big money to get them. And every summer, all it takes is one GM, or one owner (this past summer it was Minnesota, of all franchises) to over-spend and suddenly the players get to say, “See, you guys did this freely. You obviously have the money to spend. Don’t blame us”. We need salary limits, period.
- I would love it if the owners could stand up and say, “we just can’t run a league any more where we pay out 15 year, 120 million dollar (or whatever) contracts. We simply can’t. This is not major-league baseball, or the NFL, where the revenue is endless and forever with huge TV contracts every year. We’ll still pay out big money, but we have decided that we don’t want to spend more than, say, 5 million a year for a star player. There won’t be a formal cap other than that, but too many of our markets just can’t handle huge deals. But we are also going to reduce ticket prices (ah, another NHL promise that was broken) in all markets so everyday fans can get to games once in a while. Couldn’t players live on five million instead of eight, one and a half million instead of 3?
- If that number dropped, maybe long-term contracts would be more acceptable for all. But could we, in a 10-year deal, make only the first five years guaranteed? From there, is a player is injured or performance drops off, the team could still pay out a million a year, at their option. And the player would still be free to sign elsewhere as a free-agent if he is dropped.
- Why do the players (a lot of them, at least) feel the need to criticize Bettman in public? (Not that Bettman likely cares all that much, though no one enjoys being pilloried constantly in public forums.) I mean, it’s not as though we are talking about an industry where the “employees” are making a lousy wage and have been put upon. To me, it’s just bad form—adults pouting because the candy man has said he will stop handing out as much candy.
- I saw a piece somewhere (I’m sorry, I don't remember where, I would cite it if I could) saying the “star” players had done all this “extra” stuff since the last lockout as part of what they thought was a partnership with the NHL. (For example, taking part in public relations activities, etc.) Those players now don’t trust Bettman, so that perspective goes, because he has let them down again. But as much as I respect the talent these players obviously have, here are a couple of questions I'd like to ask : how else could these guys make anywhere near the kind of money they do playing hockey? And if you were making anywhere from half a million to eight million dollars a year, plus tons of other freebies and perks (and you were picked up in a limousine to attend NHL-sponsored functions to promote the league that pays you that salary and all those other niceties) would you feel hard-done-by having to attend an event here and there?
- I saw a poll this week (I think it was on Sportsnet.ca) that said 50% of fans blame both sides, while about 25% blame the owners and 15% blame the players for the current situation. That sounds about right, from what I sense. I think some people are naturally disposed to support the “workers”—in this case, the players, while others may tend to support the business “owners”. I guess I just can’t find a way to see this as a traditional “union representing the little guy versus big business" fight.
- I think if owners weren’t afraid of collusion, you would still see big salaries, but it would just be a case that no one would pay over, say, five million a season. Then you would see a number of teams bidding for a player, but the player’s signing decision would be based on other factors not relating primarily to just “salary”.
- I also believe that if the collusion question was not an issue, owners could live without a cap. (I wish there wasn’t one, myself, and not simply because the Leafs have the wherewithal to spend more than some franchises…) We don’t need a cap, we just need teams who rely on good business sense, building a good product and creating a great and cost-affordable fan experience—in markets that naturally love hockey. And the players need to realize they aren’t part of one of America’s “pastimes”. The NHL will never be baseball, football or basketball.
For too long the NHL has been trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Too many markets just aren’t and will never be true hockey markets. I named those in yesterday’s post that I feel are superb hockey markets: Minnesota, New York (Rangers), Detroit, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Ottawa, St. Louis, Buffalo, Winnipeg, Toronto and Philadelphia. Though both markets went through down times at various points not that long ago, I would certainly include Chicago and Boston, two Original Six franchises. I could live with a 16-team league (24, more realistically, as I’ve posted here before) but the NHLPA would never accept losing those jobs.
Those are some of my thoughts du jour but on this subject, I mostly enjoy hearing from VLM readers. So if you’re so inclined, send your thoughts along.