Unlike life, which is full of blurry moments and grey areas, the world of professional sports is delightful in its simplicity. Every night, one team wins and the other loses. Every season, one team wins a championship and the rest go back to the drawing board, to evaluate why they fell short.
The rewards for success tend to be great, and the price of failure is usually high. It’s an industry that culls the weak from the strong in a coolly mercenary way. Players, coaches, and managers – they are all only as good as their last season, last week, last game.
By the time they get to the NHL or NBA or NFL, they’ve had to deal with hard-edged, cutthroat competition for all their lives. The ones who survive and rise to the top generally do so because they’ve fended off challenges from all comers for a lot of years.
So a question: Why do these same high, hard standards not apply to the lead players in NHL’s collective bargaining drama, which took another U-turn this week, with hints that the players might go the decertification route?
Right now, with the NHL season on ice, the only game in town is the pitched boardroom battle being fought by two aging veterans of the labour wars –NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, who thus far have been unable to divide the spoils of a $3.3-billion business.
Here are two executives, who – when they’re not busy blaming each other for the stalemate - would have you believe they are as interested in the sport of hockey as they are in the business of hockey.
Well, okay, prove it.
If Bettman and Fehr legitimately understand anything about the ethic of the game, then they know about the aforementioned price of failure too.
Fail too often, and especially fail too often in the big moment, and soon enough, somebody else will get their turn.
It’s a ruthless, but fair system, when the stakes are so high. Real hockey people would know the rules going in, and accept them for what they are.
So a modest proposal that echoes comments made by the Florida Panthers’ Kris Versteeg about Bettman and the Washington Capitals’ Roman Hamrlik about Fehr and their respective job futures this past week:
If the two leaders are ultimately unable to come to terms on a new CBA in time to save the 2012-13 season, then both should immediately resign from their respective positions when the cancellation becomes official.
And more importantly, they should pledge their willingness to do so, publicly, now, in the third week of November, before all hope is lost.
Right now, the players say they’re doing all the compromising, while the owners insist they’re the only ones who’ve moved significantly off their starting positions.
Isn’t that rhetoric sickening to anyone who isn’t narrowly and blindly grinding one side’s agenda or the other’s?
It’s all just white noise, designed to distract from the fact that the NHL started out by asking for too much, and the players association spent four months, moving pieces around, without offering up a written and fully fleshed-out counter-proposal until just this past week.
If Bettman and Fehr knew the clock was ticking on their respective careers and still couldn’t come up with a new agreement - in good conscience and because of their respective belief systems - then so be it. No one is asking them to sacrifice their personal integrity to make a deal they cannot live with.
But then surely, it would signal that it’s time for a line change, so that a fresh set of players could take over.
New voices would provide new ideas and maybe find answers where the current negotiating teams can see only roadblocks, and the need to cancel more games (as the NHL saw fit to do Friday).
Sadly, it is unlikely that either Bettman or Fehr would have the guts to publicly put their careers on the line here. That’s another unfortunate truth about the sport – sometimes tired old has-beens hang around far past their best-before-dates.
Instead, we now hear the usual veiled threats about union decertification, a complex legal option which would permit players to individually sue teams for unfair labour practices. Well, if they’re thinking about decertification, then they should do it – and never mind just using it as a means of jump-starting the talks the way the NFL and the NBA did either.
Let’s see what a world without any sort of restrictions on player movement - or a world without an entry draft – would look like. It’d be a brave new radically altered NHL, free of salary caps, floors, spending restrictions, arbitration hearings, all the complicated rules that clutter up the landscape - and permit the money-losing, small-market teams to drive the industry over the cliff every seven years or so.
It might be the best thing that ever happened to the NHL, even if the casualty count would be high. Contraction might be a real alternative, instead of my semi-annual flight of fantasy. Mid-to-lower end players might see their salaries driven way down, so that the stars – the players that fans actually pay to see play – could earn even more of the top dollars. Year-to-year contracts would greatly enhance the competitive level, with every player motivated to perform because he’s in a contract year every year.
You gotta love the free market, right?
So far, in the NHL lockout, most of the casualties have been the little people, the ones who rely on part-time jobs at arenas to supplement income. It’d be nice to see some of the bigger fish, players and owners, endure real pain too. Maybe a leaner, tighter, decertified, reinvented NHL can return to the ice two years from now, improved and perhaps even humbled and chagrinned by the nitpickiness of the men who ran the earlier version right into the ground.