With the NHL labour talks still on hold, commissioner Gary Bettman took advantage of an opportunity to build some goodwill with the fans and at the same time issue a warning to the management side of the fight to stay in line.
By issuing a $250,000 (all currency U.S.) fine to Detroit Red Wings vice-president Jim Devellano for referring to the players and other league employees as "cattle" in an interview, Bettman sent both messages. To the fans, he said figuratively that he is a just and even-handed authority of the league, willing to dispense punishment to anyone on his side of the fence if they take a shot at the players. Thus, the implication went, you can trust me when I say we are locking out the players for the good of the game.
To the owners, team executives and other management types, Bettman reinforced a much stronger message – keep your mouth shut. The commissioner hates seeing touchy league business discussed in public by the owners and their executives. He routinely fines those who comment on issues he wants kept behind closed doors. During the lockout, the gag order is official, which is why the Red Wings paid the price for Devellano speaking what almost all on the management side see as the truth – that players are cattle who eat at the pleasure of the owners in their guise as ranchers. He also noted the Philadelphia Flyers violated an unwritten rule among owners by tendering an offer sheet to restricted free agent Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators.
None of this was earth-shattering stuff. The cattle analogy was first used by NHL outside counsel Bob Batterman when he was the architect of the 2004-05 lockout. And others have admitted the obvious, that owners are reluctant to anger their peers by offering restricted free agents bigger contracts, which the existing team matches in almost all cases in order the keep the player, albeit at a much steeper price.
Devellano's comments didn't surprise the players. Allan Walsh, the agent for Martin Havlat of the San Jose Sharks, posted a broadside from his client on Twitter. "The comments made by Devellano are nothing new," Havlat said. "The players know that's how Bettman and some of the owners think.
"We're not shocked at being called 'cattle.' I can tell you the players have been called a lot worse by some of the guys on the other side. It's just never been reported publicly. I think it helps that the fans get to hear what we already know: We're not humans in their eyes, we're just pieces of meat that get to eat some grass for awhile."
However, Devellano's comments came at an opportune time for Bettman. He and the owners are not faring well in the public relations war this time out. In 2004-05, it was obvious a lot of NHL teams were in serious financial trouble so it was easy to paint the players as overpaid fat cats unwilling to save the league by agreeing to accept a salary cap.
Seven years later, it is just as easy for the players to point out the owners got their new system, were happily handing out hundred-million-dollar contracts one day and then pleading poverty the next.
Bettman needs to build at least some trust with the fans. Giving the appearance of coming down hard on one of his own will not hurt in that regard.
No one should feel too badly for the Red Wings. Chances are that $250,000 may never make its way to the league office.
The Wings have more at stake in the lockout than the average team. They will play host to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 but it could be cancelled by the lockout. While this is a league event and it pays most of the several million dollars in preparation costs, a cancellation would cost the Wings an enormous amount of goodwill with their fans even if the game is simply rescheduled for a year later.
Bettman is hardly likely to dun the Wings for a fine, especially if this labour dispute wipes out their outdoor game.
In the meantime, labour talks remain stalled in the absence of any true incentives to get a new collective agreement, such as missed paydays and gate receipts. Expect an announcement this week that the rest of the NHL's preseason games are cancelled but a sense of urgency probably won't arrive until at least Oct. 6 when regular-season games start to be missed.
There is a chance the NHL and National Hockey League Players' Association will at least talk about the possibility of resuming negotiations following a meeting Monday to sign off on last season's revenue figures. But neither side is willing to make any predictions about that other than the idea will be kicked around.