In 1994, soon after he became NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman shut down the league for the first time by locking out the players. Bettman’s rationale - then, as now - was that the NHL needed to fix the economics of the game, because the players’ share of the proceeds was running too high.
Sound familiar? Everything that’s old is new again in the 2012 edition of the NHL lockout, including the player rhetoric which ramped up last week, when Detroit Red Wings’ defenceman Ian White called the NHL commissioner an “idiot.”
Kris Versteeg, the ex-Leaf and now Florida Panther, brought it to an even higher level Monday in an interview with TSN radio, in which he referred to both Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly as “cancers." Versteeg also called for both Bettman and Daly to step down once CBA negotiations are complete, and set off a discussion about the civility of the discourse, which has featured a lot of commissioner bashing right from the get-go.
Still, how is that new, or even newsworthy?
Emotions run high every time the players face an unknown future and all you need to do is turn the calendar back to the first lockout, when Chris Chelios famously suggested: “If I was Gary Bettman, I’d be worried about my family and my well-being. He’s going to affect a lot of people and some crazed fan, or even a player, who knows, they might take it in their own hands and figure if they get him out of the way, then things might get settled. You hate to see something like that happen, but he took the job.”
By the way, Chelios’s diatribe didn’t end there, with just a veiled threat. He went on to venture that Betman’s tactics might involve “this little man syndrome thing,” and concluded: “The main thing is, he doesn’t know anything about hockey, that’s obvious. He doesn’t recognize players like Jeremy Roenick and Brendan Shanahan at meetings.”
Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, you can watch Chelios’s comments leading off an ESPN report on the state of negotiations that also includes an interesting snatch of conversation from then Boston Bruins’ forward Cam Neely. Of the NHL’s strategy, Neely says in a visibly disgusted tone: “It’s not shooting themselves in the foot, it’s shooting themselves in the head as far as I’m concerned.”
That is the same Cam Neely, by the way, who is now the Bruins’ president and works for Jeremy Jacobs, the NHL’s chairman of the board, and one of the key players in the current round of negotiations. If Bettman didn’t recognize Shanahan then, he sure does now. Shanahan works for the NHL as a vice president of hockey and business development.
The point is, loyalties – and perspectives - can shift over time.
Only the names of the Bettman-bashers really change.
You'd have to think there would be some merit to bringing the likes of Neely and Shanahan to the bargaining table in the next round of talks, on the grounds that both previously endured a lockout from the players’ side of the fence. Logically, it might also be the reason why the NHL is reportedly including Joe Nieuwendyk, GM in Dallas, as part of the negotiating team when talks resume Monday. They too saw things from a players' perspective and are still admired by players currently in the league.
Might their presence lend any weight to the NHL’s case?
Two Fridays ago, there was an obscenity-laced shouting match between a player and an owner that ultimately drove the last round of negotiations off the rails. Maybe that sort of vitriol could be lessened if current and ex-players were exchanging views at the bargaining table, with the lawyers sitting it out for a time.
The way things stand right now, two months into a lockout that shows no signs of ending, you’d have to think, it couldn’t hurt.