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In March of 1983, the NBA and its players inked a collective agreement that included the first salary cap in the modern era and a revenue split that escalated to 57 per cent in favour of the players. If that figure sounds vaguely familiar to hockey fans, it should; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was one of the lawyers who worked on the NBA cap. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
In March of 1983, the NBA and its players inked a collective agreement that included the first salary cap in the modern era and a revenue split that escalated to 57 per cent in favour of the players. If that figure sounds vaguely familiar to hockey fans, it should; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was one of the lawyers who worked on the NBA cap. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Analysis

Owners hold the hammer in NHL labour dispute Add to ...

Since you ask, the origins of this mess can probably be traced back to The Gipper.

Well, not the real George Gipp, the Notre Dame football star who died in 1920, but a fellow who memorably played him on film in 1940: Ronald Reagan.

Four decades later Reagan, then occupying the White House, sacked 11,000 striking air traffic controllers at a stroke. You can plausibly draw a dotted line from the summer of 1981 to the serial lockouts of the past 17 months that have left fans of the NFL, NBA and now NHL watching blank screens where their favourite team’s specialty channel used to be.

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Last year, the filmmaker and lefty agitator Michael Moore wrote a piece on the 30th anniversary of the airport controller affair with the hyperbolic title The Day the Middle Class Died, marking the affair as the start of what has turned into a fretful, multidecade slide for the North American labour movement.

The latter observation isn’t a partisan one – few would contest it – and in some ways the decline has been mirrored in the major professional sports unions. Since the zenith of the 1980s and ’90s, the owners have broadly gained the upper hand (with the notable exception of baseball, more on that later).

Nowadays unions in all industries mostly play defence in collective negotiations, and there’s no reason why it should be any different when the members are millionaires. So what does all this mean for hockey fans, whose angst will be especially palpable as they mark Oct. 11 – what should have been the opening night of the season?

Predictions are always iffy, but if the current conflict follows the 2011 scripts from the NFL and NBA – which like the current NHL lockout were fundamentally about divvying up a giant pot of cash – it will end after four or five months, when the two sides find a face-saving compromise that slightly favours the owners.

“In a salary-cap environment, the discussion is always the same,” said Rodney Fort, an economics professor at the University of Michigan and an authority on the business of sports. “But unlike 2004-05 [the last NHL lockout], both sides have something to lose this time.”

Fort likes to characterize modern sports contract talks as a “Popsicle game,” which is why he’s bullish on the prospect of a shortish impasse in hockey.

If you watch a couple of kids squabble over a Popsicle and no one intervenes, Fort said, the solution often isn’t long in coming.

“They’ll usually just break it in half,” he said. “They understand that if it melts while they argue about it, no one gets any. Now the NHL and the NHLPA are going to let the Popsicle melt a little.”

The current NHL stalemate – pitting a league that wants hefty financial concessions against a union that’s sick of yielding ground – is part of a broader trend, and to understand where it fits along the continuum, a history primer is in order.

About six weeks before Reagan did in the controllers, the Major League Baseball Players’ Association marked a North American first by walking out in the middle of the season over the owners’ desire to clamp severe restrictions on free agency. They stayed out for 63 days, winning several concessions.

The next year, the NFL’s players followed suit, walking off the job Sept. 21, and remained on the picket line for 57 days, although their strike was less successful (the key demand, 55 per cent of revenues, went unfulfilled).

And in March of 1983, the NBA and its players crossed the Rubicon, inking a collective agreement that included the first salary cap in the modern era and a revenue split that escalated to 57 per cent in favour of the players.

If that figure sounds vaguely familiar to hockey fans, it should; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was one of the lawyers who worked on the NBA cap.

In 1987, tension flared again in the NFL as the players hit the bricks three weeks into the season. The 24-day disruption will forever be remembered for three weekends of inept replacement players. That strike didn’t work out so well for the players either, but it did lead to a series of court cases and a “great compromise” in 1993, which came with a salary cap and increased revenue sharing.

The next year, the NHL declared a lockout – leading to a player-friendly settlement – and in the summer baseball players struck again, wiping out the World Series for the first time and mostly trouncing the owners when the dispute was settled.

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