Before the 1972 Summit Series, victory for Team Canada meant winning all eight games and winning by big scores. Victory wasn't only about wins and losses. It was about domination.
Victory for the Soviets meant winning the series, by wins and losses or by goal differential. It didn't matter.
Victory for the fans meant domination or simple triumph, depending on which team they supported.
Today, the Summit Series remains a powerful hockey memory for those over 45, old enough to have their own personal memories, and for players on both teams. Canada didn't dominate. The Soviets didn't win. Why does this series matter so much to the players and fans of both countries?
Canada wanted to dominate, but needed to win. The Soviets wanted to win, but needed to show that hockey could be played differently at the highest level. The fans wanted domination or triumph, but needed for the games - finally - to be played. All wanted to win more than they won. All won what they had to win. All achieved acceptable victory.
The NHL lockout approaches its decisive moment. Within days, NHL owners and players will decide whether there will be a season, or no season. Much has been said, many positions have come to be strongly held by all parties. What is acceptable victory for the owners, players and fans?
In 2004, victory for the NHL owners meant a salary cap. For the players, it meant no salary cap. For the fans, it meant a full season of games to watch and an agreement between the players and owners not so one-sided as to create the wrong conditions for the next CBA.
The owners won more than they ever imagined that winning might be. They won a salary cap and the subsequent self-destruction of the NHL Players' Association. The NHLPA lost more than it ever imagined that losing might be. It lost the salary cap and self-destructed. The fans lost everything. They lost a season of games, and the possibility of any easy agreement the next time.
This time, victory for the owners is a greater share of league revenues and, now that 2004 has shown the not imaginable is possible, the self-destruction of the NHLPA. Victory for the players is to hold onto most of their existing share of league revenues, and to hold together and not self-destruct. Victory for the fans is the same - a season-full of games for now and a "balanced" agreement for later.
No agreement in advance of the date of the CBA's expiry (Sept. 15, 2012) was ever possible.
The owners, winning big the last time, looked to the possibility of winning even bigger this time. They would test the resolve of the players. The players, losing big the last time, looked to the possibility of winning back some of what had they lost and to hold onto other things they had gained out of the last CBA that no one had anticipated might be possible. They would need to withstand the owners' test. The fans, never having the prospect of a full season of games, would need to get used to less.
The owners, players and fans must now decide if victory to them is what they defined it to be almost from the beginning of these negotiations. If it is, with two determined, strongly-supported and well-matched adversaries on either side, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr, there will almost certainly be no agreement, and no season.
If not total victory, what might acceptable victory be for each of them?
The owners want a larger increased share of league revenues. They need a lesser increased share and, as Bettman has said, they don't need it all at once. They want the NHLPA to destroy itself because last time they did. They need for the NHLPA not to win.
The players want a lesser decreased share of league revenues. They need a greater decreased share and that doesn't need to happen all at once. They need to hold together because last time they didn't. They need for the owners not to win.
But more than any of this, far more: acceptable victory for each of them is that there be a season. That seemed crucial in 2004. It proved not to be. It may not be crucial this time. But don't count on it. Don't believe there won't be big consequences a second time. Don't believe the fans (sponsors, networks) will just take it. Especially because there's no fundamental issue this time, only a little more or a little less among those who already have a lot and at a time when other people have a lot less. This time it's less understandable. Less acceptable.
Last time, losing a season for the owners and players was the hard way out. This time, it's the easy way out. To play tough, to say no, to argue principle, to have no season represents failure for both of them. Coming to agreement is the hard way. There's no victory, and no acceptable victory, without a season for either of them.
The 1972 series is a milestone and treasured moment because nobody got what they thought they wanted, and everybody got what they needed. Sometimes, victory isn't what it seems.
The NHL owners, the NHL players, and NHL fans need a season.
Ken Dryden, a former MP and an author, played goal for the Montreal Canadiens from 1971 to 1979, and for Canada in the 1972 Summit Series.
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