NHL Lockout: Who is the Real Villain?

Depending on who you are and how you look at it, the 2012 NHL Lockout is chalk full of storylines, complete with villains, victims and seemingly no real end in sight.  The one thing that every great story has, that this drawn-out saga is missing, is a bona fide hero and a happy ending.  Before a true hero can emerge, we need to figure out who the real villain is in all of this pandemonium.

Is it Gary Bettman, who for years has been the target of public ire and the face of debilitating NHL lockouts in 1994 and 2005?  Is it the players and their lust for lucrative assurances to play what is essentially a kid’s game?  Or does the blame fall upon the fans, who continue to shell out colossal amounts on tickets, concessions, and memorabilia, basically funding and encouraging skyrocketing contracts and ticket prices?  Is there one true villain in this struggle to restore order or is it a combination of ignorance, greed and gullibility?

Let’s examine villain candidate number one: Mr. Gary Bettman.  Bettman, a Queens, NY native, was named NHL commissioner on February 1, 1993 amid a season that culminated in a Cinderella run by the historical Montreal Canadians, highlighted by an NHL playoff record 10 consecutive overtime wins.  It was a bright and exciting time for hockey but dark, perilous clouds were looming in the distance.  The next season, the NHL operated for a year without a collective bargaining agreement in place and tensions were beginning to build to break-neck heights.  With no agreement in sight during the 1994 off-season, a lockout was instituted which saw a 103-day lockout leading to the cancellation of 468 games, including the All-Star Game, reducing each team’s schedule to 48 games.

The main issue for the differences in opinions between the owners and players in 1994 came down to the topic of salary cap.  Owners were in favour, players were not.  The issue at hand was that the NHL wanted to tie salaries to revenue in order to subsidize smaller market teams while the NHLPA wanted to develop a revenue sharing model to aid the smaller market teams.  Eventually, unity between the owners broke as the desire for a salary cap gave way to fear that a lengthy lockout would be far more financially damaging.  Out of the lockout came a new CBA that included a salary cap for rookies and two-way rookie contracts rather than guaranteed one-way deals.

Fast forward ten years to 2004-2005, and we see Gary Bettman at the head of the negotiating table again.  This particular lockout’s main issue, which like the one before and the one that would follow it, revolved around revenue sharing.  Bettman, representing the league’s owners, presented six concepts that linked player salaries to league revenue.  The proposals outlined a financial structure based on salary caps.  One, a hard cap as utilized in the NFL and the others carrying a “soft cap” as represented in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement.  The NHLPA rejected the offers and countered with the proposal of a luxury tax as used in Major League Baseball and the result was a stalemate and the loss of the entire 2004-2005 season.

With the summer of 2005 approaching fast and still no deal in place, the two sides hunkered down deep into the night and finally hammered out a deal on July 21st.  In the end, a salary cap was introduced and the players agreed to take 54% of league revenues.  The deal called for a $39 million cap for teams in the first year of the CBA, but it didn’t take long for that to quickly escalate out of control.

Fast forward another seven years and it is déjà vu all over again.  Owners on one side, players on the other and the fans smack dab in the middle.  Why are essentially the same people fighting over the same problems over and over again?  It’s like two siblings growing up together.  One wants to play with a toy and then all of a sudden the other one wants to play with the same toy.  Next thing you know you have a fight on your hands and it isn’t even really about the toy after a while.  Then finally things die down and they shake hands and make up and promise to mom that they are going to be good.  Everything is great for a while.  Then eventually they are fighting over the same toy again and everything repeats itself.

One of the major problems that has caused everything to escalate year after year is that of simple jealousy and pride.  You see it in professional sports all the time.  Baseball is the worst.  For example, you get a rivalry that burns deep like that of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.  Everything becomes a contest of who has the faster car.  The media magnifies it even further by stirring the pot with rumours and questions of, “Now what are you going to do?”  If the Yankees sign a star player in the off-season, the media will blow it up and hail them as the favourite to win division in order to create a panic in Boston.  Then they just sit back, eat popcorn and watch as Boston scrambles to compensate for public perception.

So maybe we should be adding one more category in the quest to discover the villain in all of this.  Nah, it’s too easy to blame the media and take the pressure off the integral players in this game of push and shove.  For now, we’ll give the rag reporters, radio blowhards and TV know-it-alls a free pass.  In reality, the media is just a platform for each side to voice propaganda and stage their next campaign.  Let’s stay on track and examine the root of the problems at hand.

The worst thing that the NHL has in place today is the ability for teams to approach restricted free agents on other teams with offer sheets.  Prime example is what happened with Shea Weber this past off-season.  The Philadelphia Flyers desperately needed a high end defenseman to replace Chris Pronger and they weren’t having any luck in the trade market.  The open free agent market was notably weak on the back end so they made an offer sheet pitch to Weber.  In order to have a shot, Philly has to overshoot what they think Nashville will offer to extend Weber, essentially overpaying him.  In order to retain Weber, assuming he isn’t bat-shit crazy and turns down a hundred million bucks, the Preds have to over-extend themselves financially and match the ridiculous Philly offer.  Now Nashville is financially handcuffed and the bar has been raised for all defenseman as to what they will make in subsequent years.  No matter how well Weber plays and God forbid he have an off-year, other defensemen will be negotiating their next contract and going into arbitration measuring themselves against him and his astronomical salary.

From here, loopholes are exposed and exploited and salaries, which were originally promised would be curtailed and capped, begin to escalate and expand.  The structuring of contracts begin to take on an art form altogether.  Case in point, the layout of Ilya Kovalchuk’s contract with the New Jersey Devils.   Even as the 2012 NHL Lockout was approaching it’s inevitable commencement, teams were scrambling to dish out exorbitant contracts to remaining free agents, despite knowing full-well that they were going to be complaining about those exact contracts at the bargaining table the following week.

If you were to ask an NHL owner why they seek out nifty ways to break the very rules they fought to put in place, you would probably get something like this, “If I don’t bend the rules to sign a star like Ilya Kovalchuk, the New York Rangers will and I’ll be filing for bankruptcy in two years.”  So essentially, the owners are united and will fight arm in arm right up until it becomes a matter of protecting their own bottom lines.

Then you have the players who sign these ridiculous contracts, but let’s be honest here, who in their right mind is going to say, “You know what, I don’t need $60 million.  Just pay me $2 million and split the other $58 million between the owners and the fans”?  And if you were to sign a contract for a set amount of money and then the next year your boss came to you and said, “Ya, you know that amount we agreed you would make over the next five years?  Well we’re going to have to go ahead and knock 20% off that.”  Are you going to be happy with that just because you’re still making good money?  No.  It’s the principle of it.

Now the players aren’t innocent in this whole ordeal either. They don’t really uphold the whole, “We’re being screwed over” bit by scattering and signing contracts to play abroad.  I am all for everyone having the right to work and provide for your family by whatever means necessary.  However, that being said, if you are trying to show unity for your union in an employment battle, you don’t really look too heroic leaving your General to take bullets at the front line while you go for a smoke break.

Throughout each NHL lockout, PR teams and spin doctors from both sides work their crafty magic, often getting downright nasty.  The NHLPA pulls their usual card of depicting Gary Bettman as the Napoleonic black knight, leading the powerful owners conglomerate as they extend their mighty, diamond-speckled fist.  On the flip side, the league and owners counter with their go-to, depicting a greedy bunch of overpaid whiners who can’t even stay united long enough to resolve a conflict like real men.  In the middle of it all there is the hockey fan, crying bloody murder because they miss their beloved Saturday night double-header and blaming both sides for letting it get to this point.  Oh the poor fan.  Wait a minute, isn’t the fan not responsible in the least for things getting to this point?  I have heard a great many of heckling fans reminding players that it is they who pay their salaries.  If that is true then is it not fans, as a whole, who decide ultimately how much players will make through the simplest of business truths; supply and demand?  If fans don’t like the idea of rich owners fighting with grossly overpaid players, then why not say forget it and just go watch the AHL, the local major junior team or the NCAA?  When attendance drops, ticket prices will have to adjust and in turn, though probably through another messy lockout, salaries will have to decrease to keep the NHL in business.

Either way you look at it, every group can be depicted as a villain.  The owners are shifty and greedy.  The players are unreasonable and flaky and the fans are hypocritical.  So who is to blame for what has become of our beloved pastime?  The answer is everyone.  At least to some extent.  The next question, and the one that is of the greatest importance, is who is going to ride in on a fiery steed to save the day and marry the princess?  For that, we will all have to wait and see…

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

About Jamie McKinven

Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

View all posts by Jamie McKinven →

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.