In 1994, when NHL players were locked out the first time by commissioner Gary Bettman, the reigning star of the day, Wayne Gretzky, put pressure on the league by organizing an all-star tour of Europe with some of his friends. It was mostly a public-relations exercise, designed to cast the players as the aggrieved parties in the dispute, but did little to actually resolve the lockout.
From Gordie Howe to Gretzky to Mario Lemieux, the crème de la crème of NHL players have a long history of staying on the sidelines during labour conflicts, preferring to leave the heavy lifting to others.
It is why Sidney Crosby’s involvement in the current dispute represents such an unusual departure. Crosby, like Gretzky, zealously guards his reputation. Both learned at an early age that their every move is scrutinized with a microscope, and thus they’ve aimed to stay squeaky clean, above the fray, everywhere except perhaps in their relationships with NHL referees.
But Crosby, likely thanks to a small push from a man he trusts implicitly, agent Pat Brisson, jumped into the fray with both feet this past week after being part of the process on the edges. It was his presence at Tuesday’s meeting, opposite Pittsburgh Penguins owner Ron Burkle, that helped the process gain a small bit of traction after a long stalemate.
There are no guarantees that it’ll turn into anything tangible, but it is almost unprecedented for someone of his stature to get so actively involved in the negotiations rather than abdicating the responsibility to obscure enforcers with Ivy League degrees, or fringe players who aspire to study law.
Starting next year, Crosby will be under contract to the Penguins for 12 more years at a cost of $104.4-million (U.S.) to the organization. NHL contracts are guaranteed so that means Crosby will get his money no matter what happens with his health.
When a team makes that sort of a financial commitment to a player, they effectively become business partners.
Crosby may not have an official ownership position with the Penguins, but he is a de facto shareholder in the enterprise. Nowadays, players with that sort of stature and financial clout are usually involved in any major discussions about the organization’s future, including whom to sign as a free agent. They are often asked to help recruit talent on behalf of the organization, and they always become part of the organization’s marketing team. In short, they understand that the player and team are in it together, with the unified goal of helping the team win and make money.
It is why NHL players who’ve had a field day badmouthing Bettman have mostly steered clear from criticizing the owners that sign their individual paycheques. They know they have a working relationship with them, one that will resume once the lockout ends, and one in which they trust each other. Trust between the two sides has been in short supply during these negotiations. Accordingly, when two powerful voices from opposite sides of the bargaining table can get together and exchange ideas in a civil manner, it provides a frisson of hope in a dispute where hope has been in short supply as well.
Maybe their discussions focused only on broad philosophical lines that will need to be turned into something more tangible by the lawyers and accountants. That’s okay. That should be their function in this process anyway – to provide the fine print, when the larger issue of how to divide the spoils of a $3.3-billion business are determined by the people with a financial stake in the industry.
It’s too bad that other players on the same sort of long-term deals as Crosby – the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, the New Jersey Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk, the Nashville Predators’ Shea Weber – aren’t front and centre. Still, Crosby is the face of the NHL, and the NHL should have learned long ago that you don’t go to war with the man who will be in all your Game On! marketing campaigns that would follow a successful resolution to the dispute.
The frustrating, maddening, mind-boggling part about getting fresh voices into the sessions is that it took the two sides nearly three months to get to that point. What a waste, and all because the principals at the bargaining table were too wrapped up in the dance of the negotiations that they didn’t spend enough time pondering the art of the deal.
After all, making concessions to arrive at an equitable agreement is a necessary step in the negotiating process, not a sign of weakness or wavering resolve.
Until they digest and absorb that basic notion, nothing’s really going to change.