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Is this make or break CBA Wednesday?

Some of you will recall that a few weeks ago, as the NHL lockout continued with both sides seemingly stumbling around in the dark, I kept asking why we had not seen some good old-fashioned bargaining.  You know, some cigar-smoke, with the accompanying swearing and yelling.  In short, an old-time marathon session that would somehow nudge these two factions at least a bit closer together.

Well, the NHL and the NHLPA did just that recently (something close to it at least, meeting at length for several days in a row), and unbelievably, what happened was not progress, but the emergence of even more issues.  If various reports were remotely accurate, it sounds as though we not only had the initial stumbling blocks in play (and nowhere near resolution), but suddenly there were also new issues associated with who would pay for the losses that have been incurred as a result of the dispute.

What a mess.

As I post this, the PA is putting the finishing touches on its latest “proposal” to present to the owners sometime on Wednesday. I’d like to be encouraged. Maybe we are finally at a point in negotiations where both parties will indeed play their supposed “best” cards.  But I just don’t know.  (I admit to being confused.  If you listen to the PA, they are the only ones 'moving'.  If you listen to the owners, they claim they keep compromising and the players just sit there giving nothing back…)

Regardless of who is telling something close to the “truth”, my sense is:  this is now the second-to-last opportunity to save the remnants of what would be an already-awkward, shortened and angry season to begin with.  (That would be better than no season at all, yes, but it would be an unhappy one.)

What I mean is that if things go off the rails yet again on this week (which I expect; what would lead us to think otherwise?), there will be another pullback, another retrenchment on both sides.  We will see another “break” in talks while both parties prepare for what will likely be the season’s "Waterloo" bargaining session.  I would expect that will occur sometime around December 15 to December 20th.

If there is no agreement when the owners and the NHLPA come together then, the season, in my view, is gone.  I don’t see the owners waiting until late January, like last time, to put the 2012-’13 season out of its misery.  The hostility will be so deep, so much revenue will have been lost, so many contracts already broken, feelings hurt, players bolting, that it will be too late to put Humpty Dumpty back together once we hit January.

The truth is, there are always theatrics, nasty words, leaks, tricks, “spin” and various stops and starts in these kinds of long and bitter disputes.  This one is really not that different.  (Remember Chris Chelios last time?)  The prevalence of social media no doubt makes things seem—and feel—even more extreme than last time, as players and agents vent publicly and fans go at one another via Twitter.

But the wounds, the anger, the bitterness is very real—and palpable.  I find the player comments directed at Bettman quite sad, but I understand that emotion makes us all say and do childish things sometimes.  The owners certainly bring a history that is easy to distrust.

It’s a difficult situation all around.  Regardless of the PA trying to wash over the real numbers, many more players than usual will lose their NHL careers as a result of this stoppage.  The emnity between players and owners is deeper than ever.  When trust is broken, it takes a long, long time to rebuild what has been lost.  Often, relationships are never the same as they were before, which means, by definition, they are usually much worse.  Remember last time?  As bad as it was, there was at least a fa├žade of “partnership” coming out of the lockout, a joint desire to grow revenues so everyone could benefit.

Now, who will have the heart to work “together”?

I do believe both sides are enormously greedy.  I do believe the players live in a fantasy world and have bought into the idea that they are truly worth what they get paid, and that, because something was in their contract before, they should always automatically be entitled to it.

History tells us that the owners can’t really be believed, which adds layers to the sentiment that they would deceive the players if they could.

For me, the problem is not Bettman, or Fehr.  Both men are doing their jobs, doing the bidding of their employer.  Yes, they also lead, they advise, they put pressure on their respective constituencies to see the world a certain way, but they are genuine in their desire to do their job with the utmost professionalism.  They are shrewd, smart guys.  Unfortunately, both “never lose” which only makes this an even more untenable situation.

At the end of the day, with both "leaders" fighting for every square inch, who is looking out for what will be healthy for the game, long term?

I wish it was as simple as lopping off six teams, as I’ve suggested in this space before, so we could have a strong 24-team NHL.  This is not baseball or football.  Hockey will never generate massive U.S. TV revenues.  It will never be “America’s pastime” (baseball) or “America’s passion” (football).  Not even close.

The players should realize there are limits in their industry.  They picked the least popular big-time sport in North America.  That's just the way it is.  But they will get their money.  Just play—and be patient.    Stop complaining that Bettman is a problem because he wants a better deal for owners.  Stop saying he is to blame for bringing the NHL into lousy markets.  While I agree there are too many teams and too many in crappy markets, the truth is those extra six 'lousy' U.S. franchises have created another 120 to 150 more NHL jobs for marginal players- and more revenues for players to share in.  I don’t think the players want to give those jobs up.  And there isn’t room for six more teams in Canada.

My suggestion for the players:  if you have to win this deal, start looking for somewhere else to play, or for another line of work.  No one is entitled to what they had before, just because they had it.  You have more freedom than ever before, you make more money than ever before and more than just about everyone else on the planet.  Your salaries have skyrocketed the past few years while the rest of the world has largely gone backwards.  Appreciate what you do have.  Play the game you say you love.

The owners are what they are.  You don’t have to like them, though they are the ones that—because of their wealth and because of we everyday fans and big-spending corporate sponsors and advertisers—can pay outrageously huge salaries to you guys.  The owners aren’t your friends, but they offer the opportunity to play in a league where you can set yourself up for life.

Fight for your rights, absolutely.  Fight for a fair deal.  Keep your dignity while doing so.  But don’t make this about “winning”.  Save that for the ice.  If the owners want to come across as liars, as wealthy individuals grasping for even more, as excuse-makers, as untrustworthy, as not being men of their word, that is their issue.  They will have to live with that reputation - that stigma - on their hockey tombstones.

They will also have to live with the infamy that goes with running the only league in professional sports history that thinks it a good idea (and a good bargaining tactic) to take their product off the shelf for a year at a time every few years.

The owners may be dumb.  Don’t you guys be dumber.  Be the “bigger man”, as it were.  Make the best deal you can.  Sign it.  And then do what the owners are too gutless to do:  honour it.

By doing that, you will raise yourself up in the estimation of fans.  You will still make your money.  You will still be the game.  Ironically, you will actually "win" the game.

And you will be doing something the owners never seem able to do:  you will be taking the high road.


  1. Michael,

    That was a wonderful post. I applaud you, this is the kind of piece I wish everyone involved with hockey would take the time to read. To really read. The only thing I would change or add is that both sides need to be the bigger person and make a deal that they can live with, perhaps one that benefits the game of hockey. Forget about winning, and get back to playing hockey

  2. I agree with your broader statement, Jim. I just have no confidence that the owners, as a group, are capable of that kind of 'high road' thought or approach.

    Thanks for the kind words, by the way.

  3. 100% spot on Michael. You sum it up perfectly, nothing to add. Please forward the link to this on twitter to the NHL and the PA, or I will!

  4. Thanks for the good words, Sean. I'm not apt to forward my own stuff anywhere, but if gets forwarded by others, I have no problem with that.

    And thank you for the kind words on iTunes regarding the latest "Leaf Matters" podcast. Much appreciated.

  5. Ah, Michael, I have to say that, though everything you said was worth saying - and I'm very pleased that it's out there, published and in the public domain - I don't think there's a hope in hell of things turning out the way you propose.

    Our reality as fans is that the two sides involved in this negotiation are used to playing what they call in Game Theory "zero-sum games": there's no win-win product.

    The owners are by definition successful businessmen and they've got that way by playing the capitolist game and playing it better than the other guy. Success in that environment is defined by accumulated wealth at the expense of someone else.

    The players are inured in a milieu even more blunt. Hell, we don't even have draws in hockey anymore.

    I would suggest that neither side has it in them to take the high-road, to take one on the chin in the short term for some nebulous concept like the greater good of the game. I'm not saying I like it, but there you go.

  6. Well said, Michael, but Grumpy O'Malley here has decided he's sick of the whole (deleted) thing. I wish people would stop talking about "saving the season" - it won't be a "season", no matter how they resolve it. The complete and continuing disregard for the true bill payers - i.e, the fans - has really turned me off this time. I'm tired of reading the daily "updates" that tell me over and over that nothing's been accomplished. I'm sick of the posturing on both sides. I'd rather they just cancel this year, and take the time to work out a plan that doesn't implode every seven years or so.

  7. Loved your line about not even having ties in hockey anymore, KiwiLeaf. Neither of these sides is willing to be seen "losing". Sad.

    Yours is a sobering, but quite accurate, assessment. Thanks.

  8. I get your feeling, Gerund O'. Fans have every reason to feel frustrated. And yes, the daily "updates" are fatiguing.

    While I would argue neither the owners or players "owe" us hockey, they clearly put self-interest above all else.

    I'm not banking on "success" today, either! Thanks Gerund.

  9. Well said Michael! You summarized everything about this CBA stalemate without having to go into the gory details of what each side has been demanding. It would be nice if some players took the time to read your post.

    You're absolutely right when you said Fehr and Bettman are both professionals and represent their constituents. But the groups they represent are so very different. The owners are all seasoned businessmen who happen to own NHL teams, each with different economic issues. The players are a more diverse group of youth and experience, and relatively moderate salaries and some very rich salaries.

    Fehr is doing an excellent job of communicating to the PA and making all the players are kept informed. What concerns me, is I'm not sure he is working in the best interest of ALL the players. Consider the following...

    A) Young, relatively new players (less than 5 years experience) generally have not reached their prime earning years and holding out for a better long-term deal is in their best interest. That's not to mention they generally don't have families or mortgages to worry about. That's not to mention many of these young guys lack the maturity or business knowledge to fully understand how they are impacted. They rely on the PA's executives and Fehr to do the right thing.

    B) Rich, star players have already pocketed huge sums of money, and many are either playing in Europe or have signed contracts with nice signing bonuses. These players have adopted the "entitlement" attitude and are willing to sit out to keep as big a piece of the pie they can. They are happy to let Fehr fight tooth and nail and holdout for the best deal.

    C) What about the rest of the players (those who don't fall into category A or B above)? They may be largely outnumbered by the other groups, so their voices may not be getting heard. Their opinions simply don't carry the weight of the premier players like Crosby, Toews, Ovechkin etc.

    The players' sense of entitlement may ultimately prove to be the demise of any CBA settlement for this season. IF Fehr and the PA insist that the players are paid in full, including the losses they have incurred to date (during the lockout), then this deal may never happen.

    As you noted Michael, the greed on both sides is ridiculous.

  10. I, too, wonder if the marginal players are the ones getting hurt the most here, Don (TML_fan). We know that with another lost season (if that happens) a couple of hundred will lose their NHL jobs for good.

    Now, in some cases that may have happened anyway, but I just don't see how the players are getting the best advice here. You make money by playing. That increases your visibility, endorsement potential, name recognition for the future - everything.

    Sitting out a season because you feel the owners are not giving you "enough" of a huge pie seems odd to me, but I realize I'm not in their shoes.

    Well said, thanks Don.

  11. "While I agree there are too many teams and too many in crappy markets, the truth is those extra six 'lousy' U.S. franchises have created another 120 to 150 more NHL jobs for marginal players- and more revenues for players to share in."

    That sentence was the one that really stood out for me.

    Perhaps Ian White and other players might like to reconsider their remarks if they were to read it?

    Well said Michael.

    I'm with "Grumpy" O'Malley - call me when it's over.

  12. The players should perhaps consider the implications of that "option" (lost jobs), Ed, when complaining they are being asked to give up too much now.

    Thanks Ed.