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.
Everything old is new again in the 2012 edition of the NHL lockout, including the way player rhetoric is ramping up.
Detroit Red Wings defenceman Ian White delivered a broadside salvo last week, when he called the NHL commissioner an “idiot.”
Florida Panthers forward Kris Versteeg took it to an even higher level Monday, in an interview on TSN radio, when he described both Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly as “cancers.” According to Versteeg, once collective bargaining negotiations are complete, both Bettman and Daly need to step down so NHL fans can get “the bad taste” out of their mouths and get “a good taste going forward.”
There was also a Sportsnet report that Montreal Canadiens players were wearing “Puck Gary” ballcaps at their informal skate Monday – all signs presumably that player patience is starting to fray a little.
Certainly, the declining civility of the lockout dialogue will not help find a meaningful solution to what separates the two parties. And attacking the public face of the dispute (Bettman) is hardly a new or unprecedented turn of events.
Emotions run high every time NHL players face an unknown future and for proof, all you need to do is turn the calendar back to the first lockout, when then-Chicago Blackhawks defenceman 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.”
Chelios’s diatribe didn’t end 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 the meetings.”
Thanks to the miracle of YouTube.com, you can watch Chelios’s comments leading off an ESPN report on the state of the 1994 negotiations, which 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 Neely, by the way, who is now the Bruins president and works for team owner 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 surely 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 change.
Maybe there’d be some merit to inviting the likes of Neely and Shanahan to the table in the next round of talks, on the grounds that both previously endured a lockout from the players’ side of the fence.
Joe Nieuwendyk, the Dallas Stars general manager, who was involved in a nasty contract holdout soon after the 1994-95 lockout ended, was scheduled to attend Monday’s resumption of talks.
Could a full ex-player team of negotiators lend any weight to the NHL’s case and help get some of the soaring and unproductive vitriol out of the conversation?
The way things stand right now, two months into a lockout that shows no signs of ending and with prickliness on the rise, you’d have to think it couldn’t hurt.