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A Canucks fan holds a pair of tickets for game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final outside Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, June 15, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)
A Canucks fan holds a pair of tickets for game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final outside Rogers Arena in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, June 15, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail)

NHL lockout

From ‘cost certainty’ and team survival to just plain greed Add to ...

Don’t be fooled – this time around isn’t even remotely the same as last.

At least not for Canadians, who continue to use the word lockout as if it has the same meaning in 2012 as it did in 2004.

The only similarity is empty arenas – but at least the arenas are still there and not boarded up or turned into weekend flea markets, as was the concern eight years ago.

In September of 2004, most northern fans of the game felt the owners had a point. Many were even openly supporting the owners against the players. Salaries for playing a simple child’s game were widely seen to be spinning out of control – just as they have been considered since 1953, when Jean Béliveau was offered $105,000 over five seasons to join the Montreal Canadiens – and Canadian owners, with one single exception, were seen to be a dying, or at the very least, an endangered species.

There was genuine fear that the Winnipeg Jets, lost in 1996 to Phoenix, Arizona, and the Quebec Nordiques, lost a year earlier to Denver, were the beginning of a downward trend that no one could stop.

Only the year before the 2004 lockout, the Ottawa Senators had been forced to declare bankruptcy despite having the best record in the entire league. Success on the ice no longer translated to success in the books.

When the 2004 lockout began on Sept. 16, the Canadian dollar was worth 77.5 cents in U.S. currency. Fans then would chuckle when the odd forlorn fourth liner would sign a two-way contract in Canadian currency rather than U.S.

When the 2012 lockout began last week, the Canadian dollar was worth $1.028 in U.S. funds. Lucky indeed the player who signed for loonies instead of greenbacks.

Nor should it be forgotten that the 2004 NHL lockout came less than four years after the Canadian government came within a breath of bailing out the Canadian teams in order to ensure they did not suffer the fate of Quebec and Winnipeg.

Remember the arguments Canadian teams were putting out there? The six Canadian teams claimed they were paying three times the amount of municipal taxes as all the U.S. franchises together. The Senators said their total tax bill was well over $30-million – more, even, than the entire team payroll. Even the mighty Montreal Canadiens was pleading poverty, saying their city taxes were going to kill off the dynasty if they weren’t slashed to something more reasonable.

It was predicted that soon there would be but a single NHL franchise operating in the entire country, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and that the simple reality was that Canada could no longer afford to be part of the league it had created in 1917.

So serious was the situation believed to be that the federal government decided to act. Industry Minister John Manley came up with a proposal that would have provided millions of dollars of relief and, significantly, was geared to take the Canadian teams through to 2004, when that particular collective bargaining agreement (CBA) would end.

It was believed, absolutely, that without such help several Canadian teams would not survive.

So what happened? Well, the government gave up on its bailout proposal following a great uproar – led, coincidentally, by one Stephen Harper, then president of the National Citizens’ Coalition. But the Canadian dollar, which had been climbing, continued to climb. The NHL itself provided some relief, a new owner was found for Ottawa and, after a year-long lockout, a new (CBA) was announced.

It held a salary cap, which Canadian teams and fans wanted, and it promised “cost certainty,” which fans also said was the right way to go.

And so, five years later, you have a high-flying Canadian dollar and a CBA in which Canadian teams have prospered to a point where the northern franchises are considered the healthiest, and in some cases wealthiest, in the entire league.

Not only that, but Winnipeg has its Jets back – this time the failed franchise from the south, the Atlanta Thrashers.

And once again, the NHL has a bankrupt team it has to prop up – but this time it’s in Phoenix, to where the original Jets naively fled 16 years ago.

Canadian fans, in fact, would like nothing better than to see more teams collapse. One or two might happily move north to whiter pastures in Quebec City and Southern Ontario, but others could happily vanish, so far as the northern fan is concerned.

Imagine the joys of a 24-team NHL, where if the average player is going to be paid $2.4-million (U.S.) a year he will, in fact, be an above-average hockey player.

Last time round, they called it “cost certainty.”

Today the only thing an outsider can see in the squabbling over hockey’s $3.3-billion pot is “greed certainty.”

Which is why so many, many Canadian fans have no sympathies this time around for either owners or players.

They only ones they feel sorry for are themselves, for having to put up with such nonsense.

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