Sunday, November 04, 2012

A word on the NHL Lockout

Okay, so I’ve been silent on the NHL lockout to this point. Although I would rather remain silent on the topic, I feel it wouldn’t do any justice for my readers not to know why I haven’t weighed in on it.

See, I could go into the issues. Analyze the numbers. Discuss about which side is more correct than the other, if one side really is more correct. However, doing that would lend credence to this fight, of which I can find no rational justification for.

You see, back in 2004, a lot of fans thought the game was in trouble. The divide between the “rich” and the “poor” teams had started to engulf hockey, and while much of that divide was fuelled by the owners’ own incompetence regarding the rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement at the time, the lack of a salary cap did seem to really affect competitive balance. Back then, when the NHL said they needed to institute a salary cap and would do whatever it took to do it, we believed them, and we, as fans, thought that even though the prospect of a lost season was upsetting, we understood that the game was in a serious malaise and if we had to sacrifice a season for the long term gain of hockey, we’d be prepared to do it.

For the first few seasons, it seemed to work. Canadian teams not named “Toronto Maple Leafs” were profitable again. The “small market” Carolina Hurricanes won the 2006 Stanley Cup and other “small market” teams like the Phoenix Coyotes and Florida Panthers experienced successful seasons. Revenues nearly doubled since 2003-04, the last full season played before the new CBA took effect. Hockey now even had the Winter Classic as an added revenue generator, and stars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin appeared to make hockey more visible in the United States, where the league had been fighting for visibility for decades. When the Los Angeles Kings romped their way to the Stanley Cup this past spring, hockey seemed to have a heartwarming story of a Cinderella beating the odds to win the Cup, with the added bonus of playing in a city guaranteed to generate hockey its visibility. Everything was looking up.

Now…this. It defies explanation.

Does hockey have its issues? Yes. The divide between the rich and the poor, though not as pronounced as in years past, was still present. We have teams sign absolutely insane contracts for its players as a way to circumvent the salary cap. Player movement, and subsequently, team improvement was stagnant if not existent. Problems, yes, but they weren’t issues that, with a little bit of discussion couldn’t be resolved- all hockey needed was greater revenue sharing, a better split of the revenues between the players and the owners and a cap on contract lengths. Nothing Earth-shattering or as radical as introducing the salary cap in 2004, which would have meant changing the entire economic framework of the game, unlike now where the framework just needs a few tweaks.

Yet, what are we stuck with? A long, entrenched war between the players and the owners that has featured more than its fair share of bickering, backstabbing and emotional outbursts, and very little in the way of actual discussion. These are people who are supposed to work together?

Perhaps Gary Bettman is afraid of Donald Fehr, who steered the Major League Baseball Players’ Association to what was a major victory for the players when they successfully went on strike to avoid a salary cap. The strike back then was so destructive for the game that MLB, despite the fact its economic framework is in serious need of repair to restore competitive balance, has steadfastly refused to take any sort of labour action to correct the issue, which has led to the steady erosion of baseball’s disillusioned fanbase. This past World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the San Francisco Giants, was the worst rated Series of all time, and Series ratings since 1996 have yet to come close to pre-strike levels. Baseball’s fanbase has also gotten older (the average age of a baseball fan is 43), as younger fans turn to basketball and football for their entertainment. So driving a stake into Fehr and the NHL Players’ Association’s proverbial hearts might just be in Bettman’s long term interests.

For their part, it’s possible that Fehr and the players see this as an opportunity to rid themselves of the cap. There have been a few noises in that regard, and the players have been very vocal about the owners’ stupidity regarding contracts. So taking a philosophical stand against the cap just may make sense, especially if the players can call attention to their employers’ own incompetence without much fear of retribution.

Is this really all worth it though? The players and the league may have their reasons for engaging in their fight, but it’s not productive for hockey as a whole. CBA negotiations shouldn’t be about “who is right” and “who is wrong”- it should be about getting the best deal possible for the industry. If we are going to have a long term fight, it should be about correcting what ills hockey as a whole, not to assuage the petty egos of both sides of the conflict.

We all know there’s a deal to be done and that it should have been done a long time ago. The fact that it hasn’t means that neither side cares about the industry- and by extension, the fans- and cares only about themselves. Now, even if a deal is done next week, the damage might already be done: we’ve had games needlessly canceled and the fanbase again disillusioned, convinced that the league and the players are nothing but childish, coddled, millionaires. At least in 2004 this all made sense. Now, in 2012, none of it does- and who knows if the fans will ever come back.


P.S. For those of you wondering what I'm up to, I have another blog I'm updating more frequently. It's the East Cup Blog, which is about a fictitious hockey world I've created. It's meant as a commentary about what I believe the hockey world should look like. It's still a work in progress and won't give you any real hockey, but I hope it will provide some enjoyment.

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