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Shoalts: As anger rises over lockout, Bettman calls for a break

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman leaves following labor talks, Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, in New York.

Associated Press

The news that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman thinks it's a swell idea to take a two-week holiday six weeks into what should have been a hockey season is sure to ignite more anger from the fans, sponsors, advertisers and anyone else with a stake in the league.

Yes, figuring out how to divide record revenue of $3.3-billion (all currency U.S.) so that all concerned get rich is such an onerous task, such a Gordian Knot of a problem that the NHL commissioner feels a nice little break is in order. No sitting around boardrooms amid mouldering tuna sandwiches for this guy, trying to deal with the inscrutable Donald Fehr, no sir-ee. Let's all reconvene to the bar, shall we, and check the flight schedules to somewhere warm where they serve drinks with little umbrellas in them.

I suppose we should not be surprised at this. After all, it's the third lockout since Bettman became commissioner in 1993, the second one in the last seven years and now looking more and more like it will cost another season like the one in 2004-05. What's another two-week break?

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Until this latest whopper, people in other businesses, hockey fans all, were merely shaking their heads. In the last four years, most of them had to deal with the worst recession since the Great Depression, with shrinking revenues, which beget shrinking staff and shrinking paycheques. In the last four years, the NHL has had only to deal with four consecutive years of record annual revenue to go with the three years of record revenue before that.

The response of Bettman and the NHL owners to all this money was to shut down their business the minute the collective agreement with the players was up. Yeah, some of us are making a really big pile of money, the refrain went, but others are making a not-so-big pile, others are just breaking even and some of us are losing a really big pile of money. And the players are getting too much of it.

But somehow in the midst of this, with sporadic negotiations that would not have taxed even the most indolent labour negotiators, the players and owners agreed on the single biggest issue, how much each of them would get of the NHL's annual $3.3-billion in revenue. Fifty-fifty, they say. The union guys even said they've pretty much agreed on how much more revenue-sharing there will be between the rich and not-so-rich teams to help throw a few bucks to the poor relations.

But what they can't agree on is how fast they will get to that 50-50 deal from the old standard, which saw the players get 57 per cent. They also can't agree on just how players who signed contracts under that old 57-per-cent rule will get all of their money once their slice of the pie shrinks by seven per cent. Oh, and there's the issue of just which side will take the biggest haircut this season because the lockout is going to whack a big chunk off that string of record revenue (at least $250-million so far and counting).

Glen Hodgson is the chief economist for the Conference Board of Canada. He is also a hockey fan who is letting the Ottawa Senators hang on to his season-ticket money and pay him 5 per cent interest on it ("You can't get that rate on a bond," he says.).

Every day, Hodgson deals with people who are trying to figure out a different way to run their businesses because the economy forced them to cut back staff. He looks at the NHL and marvels at a group, he is increasingly convinced, that is hell-bent on running off the fans who made them rich.

"They've decided on the fundamentals," Hodgson said. "They're going to share 50-50. It's now all about the transition to 50-50, so why can't they get it done?"

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Maybe it's because the owners and Bettman are convinced the fans will come back no matter what they do to the game. They did last time. Look at those seven years of record revenues.

Hodgson admits he and his fellow Senators season-ticket holders will be back the minute a puck is dropped along with just about every other subscriber in the six other Canadian NHL cities.

"Hockey is in our bloodstream," he said. "It's not just a nice thing to do like it is for Americans."

Funny thing, though. Even though the seven Canadian teams provide an over-proportionate share of that $3.3-billion, the key to prosperity remains with all those American fans in the 23 U.S. cities. Owners of U.S.-based teams will tell you a frightening number of their fans are simply calling up and saying cancel my tickets, send me a full refund, no, I don't want to be on a waiting list or any kind of list, I'm done with you.

But what the heck, eh Gary? Let's just cue up that old Cliff Richard song:

We're all going on a summer holiday

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No more working for a week or two

Fun and laughter on our summer holiday

No more worries for me or you.

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