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Devellano’s cattle quote raises specter

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Red Wings vice president Jimmy Devellano

Red Wings VP Jimmy Devellano has been around the NHL for 45 years and has a reputation for speaking openly but not always wisely. (Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

Without negotiations toward a new CBA to mull over, it’s starting to get nasty out there. The clock is ticking and the ill will is rising.

Apart from the chance that informal talks might take place on Monday evening — and they seem to contain little more than each side asking the other if they’ve budged and neither doing so — the NHL lockout entered its second week with little real movement; unless, that is, you count as “movement” more players signing to skate in Europe and the fine that the league levied against the Red Wings. We feared this would happen a month ago and predictions by some that the league could resume in time for the Winter Classic took a hit when Kevin McGran of The Toronto Star revealed last Friday that the NHL plans to cancel the game come November if no deal is in sight. The Wings’ Dan Cleary said Monday that he believes the impasse could surpass the last lockout.

So hockey fans must be content with the public relations battle between the NHL and the NHLPA. On that front, Red Wings executive Jim Devellano did the owners no favors with his rather malevolent characterization of the players  — and all employees of the owners, himself included — as cattle, among other strange remarks he made in an interview.

The league whacked the Red Wings, reported by some to be $250,000, for Jimmy D.’s remarks (although David Shoalts of The Globe and Mail doubts the NHL will bother to collect the money). Regardless, what Devellano said shows the wisdom of Gary Bettman’s prohibition on anyone among the owners or their minions speaking about anything concerning labor relations.

The larger questions in this little brouhaha remain, however: how accurate is the picture that Devellano painted of the owners’ regard for players and others in their employ? And was that the worst of what Jimmy D. said?

In case you haven’t read it yet elsewhere, here’s what Devellano told Scott Harrigan on the British Columbia website Island Sports News while discussing the explosion of contracts at big salary levels the owners doled out just prior to the lockout: “It’s very complicated and way too much for the average Joe to understand, but having said that, I will tell you this: The owners can basically be viewed as the Ranch, and the players, and me included, are the cattle. The owners own the Ranch and allow the players to eat there. That’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it will be forever. And the owners simply aren’t going to let a union push them around. It’s not going to happen.”

Well, no one likes to be disrespected or considered (even if it’s just by way of metaphor) as anything less than human, especially by the guy who signs their paychecks. Devellano’s words reinforce among the players some of the messages that the NHLPA has forwarded in recent weeks.

Are there owners who think that way? No doubt. But do all or even most of them believe that players are no more than cattle? It’s hard to imagine that Mario Lemieux thinks that way, having been a player. Or that Wayne Gretzky did when he owned a piece of the Coyotes. When you hear Terry Pegula get emotional about what the Buffalo Sabres and their players have meant to him, it’s difficult to conceive that he considers the players cattle.

Devellano knows his boss better than I do, but from everything I’ve ever heard about Mike Illitch, he doesn’t seem like a man who thinks that way, either. Illitch has always cared about his players and he cares about the game: He’s contributed a huge amount of his Little Caesar’s resources to help promote and foster youth hockey and other sports in Detroit. You don’t do that if your perspective is one that denigrates and objectifies the people playing the sport. Maybe Illitch is an exception and the rule is the kind of guy that Devellano described. Tough to know for sure.

Whatever the true sentiments of the majority of the owners, the damage has been done. It’s in the news cycle now and the perception that Devellano imparted is being reinforced. For example, the Sharks’ Martin Havlat went right after it through his agent in remarks that are being widely disseminated. Alan Walsh tweeted that Havlat told him: ‘The comments made by Devellano are nothing new. The players know that’s how Bettman and some of the owners think, we’re not shocked at being called ‘cattle’. I can tell you the players have been called a lot worse by some of the guys on the other side, it’s just never been reported publicly. I think it helps that the fans get to hear what we already know, we’re not humans in their eyes, we’re just pieces of meat that get to eat some grass for a while.”

Bruce Arthur in Monday’s National Post called Devellano’s sentiment a gaffe that accidentally tells the truth.

Shoalts reminded his readers that “The cattle analogy was first used by NHL outside counsel Bob Batterman when he was the architect of the 2004-05 lockout” (as did as The Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont and former agent, Maple Leafs exec and media personality Bill Waters via Twitter). Batterman remains a presence on the NHL legal team in this lockout.

(The original quote, reader David Boyd reminds us, was from 1987 and uttered by Tex Schramm, the original president and GM of the Dallas Cowboys. As NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw recalled during testimony 20 years ago during an anti-trust trial against the NFL, Schramm “said the players are like cattle and the owners are ranchers and the owners can always get more cattle.”)

Now, let’s keep this “cattle” quote in its proper context, because it’s even more damaging than most believe. Devellano formed his rancher analogy while speaking about Restricted Free Agency and his contention that there’s an “unwritten rule” that teams don’t sign other teams’ RFAs. It’s not against the actual rules to do so, he said, and the Flyers signing of Shea Weber to an offer sheet shows it can be done. But “just like everything else in life, some people are great to deal with, some aren’t. If you are asking me if it’s right, I would say there is, again, an unwritten rule…we all know it in the NHL, but not everyone follows it.”

The cattle quote got most of the attention, colorful as it was. But this second passage could be viewed by the legal minds who run the sports world as a hugely damaging contention because it raises the specter of collusion among owners to illegally keep player salaries down. Major League Baseball owners have been found guilty of collusion on occasion and it’s expressly prohibited in MLB’s CBA.  I’m no expert in the NHL’s CBA, however I’ve been unable to find any specific language in it that’s like what’s in baseball’s agreement. But regardless, the image that the owners have some sort of “unwritten rule” designed to thwart a category of free agency certainly doesn’t make them look especially good. That part of what he said is drawing fire as well.

Devallano is an interesting man. Bespectacled, balding and possessed of a unique laconic speech pattern, he’s been a continual Detroit front office presence since Mike Illitch bought the club from the Norris family in the early 1980s and made Devellano the GM. He’s been around the NHL even longer than that — forever, it seems — back to 1967 and the first year of the St. Louis Blues (as a scout) and, a few years later, the start of the Islanders franchise where he helped GM Bill Torrey build a dynasty. He knows the business of hockey rather thoroughly and he’s never been reluctant to dispense what he knows when a reporter asks, although, like a lot of hockey executives (and anyone in public life), he’s got a certain distrust of the media, which is not entirely unjustified.

That doesn’t mean that Jimmy D. always speaks wisely himself, or can’t be confused. In that Island Sports News interview, he maintained that Gary Bettman — who Devellano portrays as just doing the bidding of the 30 owners who are directing him in this lockout — is forced to absorb all sorts of abuse from fans. That when the confusion starts: “It is always people jumping on Bettman and to be honest he doesn’t care,” says Devellano, who then immediately contradicts himself. “Maybe that’s what irks the fans is that he comes away looking like it doesn’t bother him in the least. But I will tell you this, Scott, it does bother him, he has said as much to me many times. He has said he wished he wasn’t booed wherever he goes, or that every time he reads the papers he is slammed. It does bother him greatly. However he knows what his job is and he does it well.”

Oh, well. I guess Jimmy is frustrated and anxious just like everyone else around hockey. And now he’s gotten himself caught up in the media machine and he’s going through the spin cycle. That can’t be fun. He was among those quoted by McGran in the article on Friday about the league’s plans for the Winter Classic. “We’re going forward with (the Winter Classic) at this point in time,” Devellano said on behalf of the Wings. “It’s way too early to start to speculate. It’s at least a month too early to worry about it.”

That could be the last quote we hear from Jimmy D. for a while.

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  • Published On Sep 24, 2012
  • 11 comments
    VicDiGital
    VicDiGital

    If they players themselves WEREN'T cattle, they could just start their own league and make 100% of the income.  But that'll never happen.  They need owners with big pockets and business management skills to run something like this.  So as long as the players need someone else to create and pay for the environment they require in order to do the thing that makes them 'valuable', they need to just shut up and be HAPPY with whatever ridiculous amount of money they have to settle for.  As far as I'm concerned, if you're a hockey player, you should wake up every day with your mind blown that you not only don't have to currently have a 'real' job, but that they are willing to pay you silly amounts of money.  If I'm a hockey player and I'm making more than $100,000 a year playing HOCKEY, I'm going to keep my mouth shut and hope the people paying me don't realize that all I'm doing is skating around on ice after a puck for a couple of hours a few nights a week.  

    JoeCabot
    JoeCabot

    Stu, this is way out there.  Or maybe not.   What is your opinion on rebooting the entire NHL?  Let the thing, as it currently exists, implode.   Let Bettman, Daly, Fehr, and the rest kill the league.  They are a bunch of one-trick ponies that love to do the same thing repeatedly and tout it as progress.   Time for some forward thinkers to join the management on both sides of the table, create a new business model, and take the game into the future, instead of the letting the current crop financial dolts continue to take the game down the same worn out path.  New league.  New management.   Fresh, new ideas.  A new game.  A new era.   What say you?

    Tyler2
    Tyler2

    The cattle analogy isn't really about the players being less than human. It's about them being replaceable. In the end, the owners view the players as both replaceable and breakable (in terms of the negotiations, not in physical terms). There is an essential lack of respect - to be fair, it probably goes both ways since Bettman is loathed - that prevents the sides from coming together until absolutely necessary. It's killing the NHL.

    SidneyPhillips
    SidneyPhillips

    How does Gary Bettman still have a job? Most incompetent commissioner by far of all the major sports leagues.

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @VicDiGital Vic - Thanks very much for your excellent re-creation of Original Six-era ownership thinking. Unfortunately for that mind-set, the world has undergone a few changes in the last five decades and I'm afraid you're not going to be able to turn back the clock.

     

    Players in every pro sport today work in an industry in which they help generate billions of dollars for ownership (an even more ridiculous amount of money), they have devoted much of their youth to getting to this level, they have a very limited time to capitalize on their talents and, in most cases, are not trained to do anything else but excel in their chosen profession for as long as they can before injury, age or just someone better comes along to end it all for them. They long ago banded together to present an organized alternative to the "shut up and play" approach to labor relations and, sad as it might be for those who would like to live in the past, that's the current reality.

     

    I think any solution to the NHL's current problems is more likely to be found in collective bargaining and recognizing that exercising and practicing contempt for the players is not going to result in an agreement.

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @JoeCabot I don't know how 'way out there' that is, Joe. I know a few people who have suggested it. But I wonder: Wasn't the institution of the salary cap a reboot?

     

    Further, just saying "Let's reboot" isn't the same thing as seeing exactly what the reboot would consist of. To his credit, I think Fehr has suggested some different ideas, but the league isn't interested, in part, I think, because it means more revenue sharing.

     

    You still have to get both sides to agree to any reboot -- it has to be collectively bargained -- and if they are dug in now, what's to prevent them from being dug in against whatever the reboot calls for? The owners have investments and they are still going to want a certain amount of return on them. Similarly, the players want assurances that they will share in the league's growth. If someone can come up with a system that guarantees both, you might be able to accomplish forging a new system, but I'm not expert enough to know how that can be assured.

     

    As an abstract idea, what you suggest has merit, but I think we'd have to see what a reboot would be concretely -- and it would still have to be something to which both sides agreed.

     

    Thanks for the comment.

    SeanPassingham
    SeanPassingham

     @SidneyPhillips

     I imagine the owners have a much different opinion of Mr. Bettman than we do.  Most of the franchises are worth A LOT more now than they were 5, 10 or 15 years ago.  We the fans think he's a clown because we have a 3rd work stoppage under his watch (among other things) but it seems to me he's also the one getting the credit (begrudgingly) for the new TV deal in the US and the increased popularity of the sport/NHL worldwide.  Look, I'm not a Bettman fan, but his job is to do the dirty work for the owners - for which he is highly compensated.

    nfinitwordsfoto
    nfinitwordsfoto

     @SidneyPhillips Commissioners are hired and paid by the owners to represent their interests.  They don't really have all the power to do what's always right or best.

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @SidneyPhillips I don't think his bosses, the owners, share that opinion and they are the ones who count in terms of his employment.

    VicDiGital
    VicDiGital

    No contempt for players here, just incredulity at their sense of entitlement.  Let's take their worst-case scenario and they agree to the owners most extreme proposal.  Then let's give the owners an additional 20%.  So now we're giving the players only 30% of 3.3 Billion dollars.  That's 900 million roughly.  There's 700 players in the league.  Let's double that to include all the AHL players just for the sake of this argument.  That's anyone who is, or might be playing top level hockey in a given year.  

     

    This comes out to ON AVERAGE, $700,000 per player for ALL first and second tier players AND giving the owners an additional 20%.   (yes, I know not every player makes the same amount).    I fail to see how players lives will be catastrophically impacted by agreeing to the deal that the owners have on the table.  This isn't "Original Six" level salaries, where players have to work on farms in the summer to make ends meet.  I daresay that if we add up the salaries of everyone commenting on this thread, you included, that we barely make $700,000 per year.  

     

    My point is that I find it impossible to dredge up any sympathy for the players (of any of the big four sports).  They're playing a game that the rest of us play for free or have to PAY to be in a league, and they are getting paid very well to do so, and they are unhappy.  They are OUTRAGED and insulted at having to settle for making, on average, $700,000 a year.  

     

    There's a reason why the players don't just break off and start their own league.  It's EXPENSIVE.  It takes time, resources and manpower.   It takes having to build arenas or make agreements with arenas.  No one is stopping the players from playing hockey whenever they want.  But in no other reality will they make $700,000 a year.  

     

    We're in some sort of strange cycle right now where owners are the devil.   They have the audacity to want to make a profit on the product they are investing all their money into.  They are vilified for wanting to keep only HALF of the revenues their teams bring in.  How dare they want to be entitled to half!  

     

    I don't have contempt for the players, but I AM getting sick of those players who don't realize what a ridiculous gift it is that they are able to play their favorite sport as their career and get paid handsomely for it.   We're WAY past the point of players fighting for enough money to pay for their families to eat.  The difference between what the players are asking for and what the owners are offering is about how many more generations of their family can be set for life.  

     

    When is it enough money?

    JoeCabot
    JoeCabot

     @Stu Hackel  @JoeCabot My reboot consists of eliminating the existing league structure, completely getting rid of the NHL power structure.  Bettman, Daly, & all the rest.  Gone.  Get some forward thinking hockey people in there that care about the game & are interested in seeing the future of the game be more than strikes and lockouts every few years.   Abstract?  Absolutely.   But the business model is completely broken & no one from the NHL seems to have a clue or a care about long term health for the league.  They want to play the break-the-union game that is all the rage these days.  I am not a union guy.  Never have had they type of work that required it, so this is not about defending the players union.   This seems to be on par with the NFL folks soiling their game over a relatively small financial argument with their refs.   Enough already.