DAILY GRIND

Seeds of the lockout sown seven years ago and for that, both sides are to blame

Special to The Globe and Mail

A young hockey fan waits in the lobby of the building housing the NHLPA offices in Toronto on Wednesday August 15, 2012. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Bruce Dowbiggin posts his perspective on the world of sports each morning.

There are plenty of reasons to rag on the NHL as it prepares to cancel its one successful new initiative, the Winter Classic. Take your pick. One classic is how commissioner Gary Bettman, who decries inflationary contracts, signed off on the four-year, $21.2-million deal to 35-year-old Shane Doan in Phoenix the day before the lockout.

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Because the league owns Phoenix, Bettman had to approve of the inflationary deal. Giving that kind of money to a player at the tail end of his career has proven to be folly. Yet, like the hard-pressed GMs he scolds, Bettman gave up the shop all the same.

But enough of the league (for now). If NHL players are mad at the men who own their teams, they have only themselves to blame. First, consider the shambles the players made of replacing executive director Bob Goodenow after 2005. Having canned the man who led them into the disastrous 2004-’05 lockout, the players tried three times to get it right.

Instead of using the seven years between CBAs to strengthen its base and improve its relationship with the NHL, the PA frittered away the time putting the shiv into Ted Saskin and Paul Kelly, both moderates. They then replaced them with a hawk in Donald Fehr. The bloodletting would have made the Borgias proud but did nothing to help their negotiating position against hawks in NHL ownership.

Why was that seven years important? NHL owners believed that their divide-and-conquer strategy had been the key to getting the salary cap in 2005. The last thing they needed was encouragement to believe it would work again. Yet the players only hired Fehr 18 months before bargaining, a last-minute strategy that did little to heal the PA’s wounds and, more critically, impress the owners with the NHLPA’s resolve.

By offering a vulnerable front, the players invited another nuclear labour winter from Bettman & Co. They got it in the NHL’s scorched-earth first offer this summer of 43 per cent of revenues. The rest is history. Very sad history.

GMs forced to ‘manage up’

Need more ways the NHLPA brought the house down on themselves? The salary spiral of the 1990s caused owners to go from gentlemen fans to bottom-line participants in their club’s financial future. Resulting in their current militancy.

The advent of 12-year, $100-million contracts made players stakeholders in NHL clubs, causing owners to become involved in the day-to-day running of the club. “In [Harry] Sinden’s day, he just picked up the phone and told the [Boston] owner what he was going to do,” says Mike Keenan, former GM in Chicago, Florida and Vancouver. “Owners let the managers control the team in every aspect from paying bills to negotiate contracts. When the money started to escalate the owners became very involved.

“My first experience was in Chicago with Chris Chelios. The history of [Chicago owner] Mr. [Bill] Wirtz was that not even Bobby Hull could get a million dollar contract out of him. Chris was going to be the first million-dollar contract, and that was a tough negotiation and a big transition in Blackhawks’ history. And Mr. Wirtz was involved in that. Owners are quite active now.”

With the involvement of the owner came other voices, too. “My owner was terrific but as time goes on, other people get in the owner’s ear, accountants who want to become involved, be the president, the go-between,” says Doug MacLean, former president/general manger in Columbus. “It’s evolved. People say, ’why don’t GMs scout anymore?’, and it’s because 90 per cent of their time is taken up with the media, the big team and the owner and the owner’s boys. There’s no time to scout anymore.”

That has changed the traditional GM’s role, says Keenan. “Once the budgets were expanding and the money growing, the manager’s job changed. He had to identify talent and make trades, but a lot of the money issues went to the ownership level. What a manager has to do is manage up, manage the owner. Or manage the CEO or the president of the club. There are a lot of layers there that weren’t part of the process in the early days.”

Maclean agrees. “You manage up. It wasn’t a GM who changed the business. The evolution was the first president of a team. I don’t know who started it. It went from just the owner and the GM to being the owner’s guy running things. It changed the GM’s role. So don’t just blame a GM for a trade or a signing. There’s a lot more people involved in making that decision.”

Candid Carter

Perhaps the most succinct analysis ever of playing young players in the NBA came from former Toronto Raptors coach Butch Carter of Prime Time Sports on Sportsnet Radio The Fan 590. Carter was asked about the challenge of being a young player like Raptor draft choice Jonas Valanciunas in the NBA. Observing that Bryan Colangelo, who drafted the 20-year-old Lithuanian, had just one year left on his deal, Carter suggested that current coach Dwayne Casey was going to have to work very hard to resist front office pleas for Valanciunas to play a bunch.

But the most interesting points were about the NBA officials, whose power lies somewhere just south of God on court. Carter suggested young players make easy foul targets for referees when star players do their thing. “You have seven people that you, as a young player, have to impress. Those are two of the officials and the other five guys you’re going to play against on the other team.... when people don’t think that an NBA official doesn’t understand what a good player is and what a bad player is, they’re fooling themselves. And it’s to the detriment of the player.” Ouch.

dowbboy@shaw.ca / @dowbboy