It never was about winning or losing, but let’s declare a winner in the NHL lockout, anyhow: at this time, the edge goes to the owners. Right now, they get to keep more money. Keep the cheering down to a dull roar, OK?
That was always going to be the case, because when the NHLPA agreed to a hard salary cap in its last collective bargaining agreement it effectively put its association in a defensive bargaining position forever. Unless NHL owners decide at some point to settle for luxury tax instead of a salary cap, each negotiation for the NHLPA be about the same thing: yielding as little ground as possible. The players might still win in the long run, of course, because owners in every sport have shown they’ll allow their general managers to find loop-holes and game the system. In some cities, like Toronto, that would come as a pleasant change.
The details of the new CBA will continue to trickle out – one thing we’ve learned in these negotiations is that there is no leakier boat than the one manned by commissioner Gary Bettman and Bill Daly, who used their acolytes in the hockey media one Friday night in a ham-handed attempt to foment insurrection against players union chief Donald Fehr – and teams will fall over each other to fill out their rosters but the focus for the NHL now needs to be on its fans.
Public opinion surveys showing wide-spread disgust with the NHL were a dime a dozen during the lockout and none of them are worth the paper they’re printed on or the effort that went into the phone calls. Season-ticket holders in Canada didn’t cancel tickets; merchandise continued to be purchased and while there will be some ‘pox on both their houses’ signs in arenas at most games during the first week, hockey fans in Canada and the stronger U.S. markets will be back. As Bettman said early in this process: “our fans are loyal.” Translation? They’re sheep.
It has been suggested in social media circles that fans stage some sort of in-game walkout as a protest, but hockey fans don’t have the stones of European soccer fans and given the fact the expensive seats at the Air Canada Centre aren’t usually occupied for vast stretches by the sushi and chardonnay brigade, and given the fact seats are routinely empty at many NHL arenas in the U.S., how on earth would anybody know there’s a protest? Seriously: haven’t the New York Islanders been subject of a fan protest for a decade?
The best thing the NHL owners could do for their fans, frankly, is get rid of Bettman. Yes, the NHL has seen revenues grow from under $500 million at the beginning of his tenure to over $3 billion. But Bettman has now forced three lockouts – and make no mistake, in each case it was 100 per-cent his and ownership’s call – and in some business schools that would be seen as lousy management. This most recent lockout was out of a playbook drawn up by the New York law firm of Proskauer, Rose LLP that guided the NBA and NFL into lockouts and provided the NHL with its legal counsel, Bob Batterman.
It will be shocking, frankly, if Fehr is head of the NHLPA in a year’s time. And when his book is written, his time in that position is going to be a chapter, at most. There will be other things for him to do; he can leave knowing the NHLPA has a much better sense of self than it’s ever had, as well as the type of professional governance that, hopefully, will mitigate against undue influence from some of its alumni who spent the last three months urging the current group of players to take whatever the owners are offering. No wonder these guys ended up being stuck with a salary cap.
It will be Bettman and his wrong-hand man Daly who are the personification of this lockout, and that’s how it should be. They were the public face of a brutish, negotiating strategy that consisted of several final offers, at least one make-believe “hill we’ll die on,” – Daly will need all of his media buddies to help him live down that one – and last-minute, accidental, changes to language. Bettman will be 61 in June, and even though this agreement has a minimum eight years to run, here’s hoping he hits the bricks at 65. He was already yesterday’s man by Sunday afternoon. The game might be better for him; it will definitely be better off without him. Of all the sops NHL ownership will throw its fans in these next few weeks - discounted this, discounted that - this is a move that would most resonate.
It would make us all winners.