There are just 29 votes that matter in the NHL's tortured labour landscape. They represent the NHL clubs – minus the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes, which are controlled by the league. The NHL is their toy, and if they wish to burn it to the ground or play with a pink puck, they can do it.
In that respect, there are no pressure points or wedge issues as the owners revert to their chosen labour technique, the lockout, for a third time since 1994.
This, no doubt, is sad news for the TV networks that have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to broadcast NHL games this season. CBC is paying about $100-million (all currency U.S.) this season. NBC is in for $200-million. A collection of other networks – TSN, Sportsnet, NBC Sports Channel, regional U.S. networks – are on the hook for hundreds of millions more whether the NHL plays this season or not.
Their compensation will only come later in the form of an added season on their contracts or other compensation for partial campaigns. How they fill the thousands of hours of air time while players and owners haggle is, at this moment, largely irrelevant to the NHL, which assumes it has a captive client in the networks.
In Canada, the NHL may be correct. When commissioner Gary Bettman commented last month that he has no worries about the damage a lockout might cause, because the NHL has the greatest fans in the world, he was largely talking about Canadian fans. The commissioner assumes, correctly, that no indignity or no delay is too great for the Canadian market if it can just get its hockey back.
Having said that, is there still a possibility that broadcast commitments might spur the sides toward a settlement after they pass the witching hour on Saturday? Conventional wisdom says that, no matter how deluded the sides are about their in-house squabble, the league and players will not endanger the annual Winter Classic, due to be played before 100,000 spectators on Jan. 1 at Michigan Stadium. The game marks the start of NBC's schedule (for which the NHL gets $2-billion over 10 years).
But the real pressure point in this argument comes much earlier, around the U.S. Thanksgiving Day holiday, which falls on Nov. 22. That's typically when HBO cameras are gearing up for anther season of the critically acclaimed documentary series 24/7 . This year, HBO will follow the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs as they prepare for the Jan. 1 contest. To say it is hotly anticipated is like saying the Leafs are struggling a tad to win a Stanley Cup.
The format is a four-week tease leading into the Winter Classic that creates story lines and introduces personalities (tell us you're not looking forward to Toronto president and general manager Brian Burke chewing on the scenery). When the game rolls out, viewers are onside with the characters.
To produce four weeks of documentary footage for 24/7 , training camps would have to be opened around the end of November – just after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. It's conceivable that HBO might settle for three episodes, but any less than that would ruin the format. Plus, NBC and the University of Michigan are highly unlikely to move back the Winter Classic date.
It's hard to exaggerate the importance of the HBO series to the league's profile in the United States and to the NHL's head office located in New York. For a league that has unerringly chosen the wrong broadcast strategies in the past, the HBO series has been a redemption for the NHL's marketing and broadcast wings. 24/7 put the league's names, faces and back stories before the U.S. sporting public in a way it had never done before.
The NHL craves the respect its sister sports leagues receive the way U.S. President Barack Obama craves a smoke halfway through a lengthy press conference. To punt the HBO series and the Winter Classic over a squabble over money, not principle, would be seen as yet another banana the NHL chose to put in its own way.
Having said that, experience tells us that when the NHL owners hunker down, not much light gets into the inner sanctum. Failure of imagination is their calling card. The players, less insulated from reality, get feedback during a lockout. But they, too, can lose sight of the forest for the trees. If the NHL lockout actually begins on Saturday at midnight with Bettman's stage tears coursing down his face for hockey fans, you can put away the Racing Form.
They'll be in uncharted territory where no TV network can find them.