The first weekend of the NHL regular season was supposed to be on tap Saturday night, with the usual Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader scheduled.
Instead of action, we have talk. More specifically, another break in the talks to negotiate a new collective agreement and resolve a lockout that shows no signs of ending any time soon.
Four weeks into the deadlock, it is clear how little trust exists on either side, and why there might even be a reasonable explanation for the mutual suspicion that is preventing any meaningful discussions.
Think back to the day when the NHL cancelled the first 82 games of the regular season. NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr went to the attack. He called the decision a “unilateral choice of the NHL owners” and suggested that the lockout should be lifted so the season could start on time and, meanwhile, negotiations could continue. It was an offer designed to position the players on the side of the righteous and cast the NHL as the bogeyman in this dispute.
Problem is, commissioner Gary Bettman has been around long enough to remember that the NHL went down that path twice before, the second time just as Bettman was coming into office, soon after the NHLPA was phasing out Alan Eagleson as its disgraced executive director.
Bob Goodenow was nominated as the heir apparent and joined the NHLPA, first as its deputy director, before taking over the top job on Jan. 1, 1992. Labour unrest was already in the air. The collective agreement had expired at the start of the 1991-92 season, so they were playing the season without an agreement. Predictably, when negotiations between Goodenow and then NHL president John Ziegler broke down, the players called a strike for April 1.
Fehr called that a minor “licensing dispute” in one of his press availabilities, but it was far more than that.
It was a dispute about free agency, arbitration, playoff bonuses, pensions and, yes, how to divide trading-card revenue. It was a crafty move by Goodenow because all the leverage was on his side by then. Only a handful of regular-season games remained on the schedule. The playoffs were in jeopardy. It forced the two sides to act fast, and they did. With the help of a federal mediator, they ended the strike after 10 days, rescheduled all the cancelled games, and the playoffs went ahead. The Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Mario Lemieux, won.
Sadly, that rushed, 11th-hour agreement expired after the 1992-93 season and only postponed the inevitable.
By the fall of 1993, there was already speculation that the NHL would lock the players out in training camps, but once again, the two sides agreed to do what Fehr is pressing for now – to play on, for the greater good of the game, and try to negotiate a deal in the meantime.
The New York Rangers, led by Mark Messier, won the Stanley Cup, culminating a great year on the ice for the NHL. But there was no meaningful progress made at the bargaining table because there was no urgency for either side to give any ground.
In the end, the lockout forecast for September of 1993 came about one year later, in the fall of 1994.
By then there’d been a significant change at the top of the NHL hierarchy. Ziegler had been replaced, on an interim basis, by Gil Stein as league president. Then a search committee appointed the NBA’s No. 3 man, Bettman, as the NHL’s first commissioner. You know the rest of the story.
With Bettman in charge, the NHL has locked out the players three times – 1994, 2004, 2012.
During that costly 2004-05 lockout, the NHLPA made the first significant move to end the stalemate by offering a 24-per-cent salary rollback. Bettman happily pocketed their concession, but then said in effect, “That’s a start, we need more, what else have you got for me?” Eventually the players’ association surrendered the salary cap too, after a bitter and divisive negotiation that split the union apart.
So given the history, you can understand why the NHL doesn’t want to play without an agreement, and why the NHLPA isn’t in a rush to make any sort of meaningful concessions. Both have learned there’s truth in the old adage, once bitten, twice shy.
The problem now, is how to get things unstuck. One of the two sides – likely whichever one grows most desperate – will need to compromise. In the meantime, neither side wants to show its hand first, believing that that would only undermine the strengths of its bargaining position.
Unfortunately, both players and owners have proved in the past that they can’t play nice in the negotiating sandbox, Fehr as leader of the baseball players’ union, Bettman in almost two decades of running the NHL.
You can only hope that all their cheap, specious arguments and bland motherhood statements will give way to legitimate, behind-closed-doors bargaining. Because if they don’t – if this is all they have – then the doors to NHL arenas will remain shuttered for a long time.