News Column

Cynical NHL Delivering Slapshot to Players, Fans

Dec. 27, 2012

Every major sport has faced work stoppages in the past 40 years. In the past two years, only baseball, which invented the notion of the shutdown, has managed to avoid one.

But no sport gets it all wrong like hockey.

Hockey is the only sport that has lost an entire season because of a work stoppage. In 2011, NFL owners and players fought one another for every dollar until the moment when everyone on both sides realized that missing actual games - even exhibition games - was a disaster.

Next up was the NBA. By Christmas Day, the angry words had stopped and basketball had started.

Which brings us to hockey, the sport that simply doesn't get it.

Since Gary Bettman became commissioner almost 20 years ago, the league has had three lockouts. The word "lockout" is important: It is never the players insisting they can no longer survive under the existing terms of the collective bargaining agreement; it is always the owners.

To Bettman and hockey's owners, compromise means the players accept exactly what they are offered and thank them for allowing them to share the same room.

During one bargaining session, the owners made a proposal, and when the players responded by making counteroffers, the owners and their representatives got up and walked out of the meeting.

In fact, when NHL Players Association Executive Director Donald Fehr said a couple of weeks ago that he believed the players and owners were close to making a deal, Bettman was apoplectic, making it clear that they were not close to a deal and how dare Fehr imply such a thing.

Eight years ago, when there was no hockey season, the owners insisted on a salary cap and major salary rollbacks. They got both. Now, they are saying that wasn't nearly good enough. Part of the problem is that the owners themselves have manipulated the cap by giving players ludicrously long-term contracts front-loaded with signing bonuses.

Beyond that, even though the league's hockey revenues have gone from $2.1 billion at the time of the last lockout to $3.3 billion now, some franchises are struggling financially - in part because of mismanagement, but in part because the league put teams in cities where they didn't belong. All of which is why the owners are insisting they need a larger chunk of hockey-related revenue and a CBA that prohibits them from giving players these long-term contracts.

In spite of all this, the players have agreed to a 50-50 split of hockey revenues and to limits on the length of contracts. The owners have moved a little since their unreal opening offers, but would still win a huge victory if they signed the offer the players have put on the table today.

But it isn't good enough.

Instead of sitting down with the federal mediators who have been involved for almost a month now and hammering out the final details of the deal, the owners have gone home for the holidays.

Most fans just want to see hockey again. Hockey fans are probably more loyal than fans of any of the other major sports. In 2005-06, the year after the lost season, NHL attendance actually went up.

That likely won't happen this time around. Even those who love the game are heartily sick of the discord.

It may well take a judge to save hockey from itself. As of this moment, no one running the game seems to care even a little bit about seeing any kind of save anytime in the near future.

Source: (C) 2012 The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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