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NHL blundering toward lockout disaster

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Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild

Zach Parise is just one of the players voicing their anger at NHL owners and Commissioner Gary Bettman, who have contributed to the corrosive atmosphere that now surrounds the ongoing lockout. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

As we’ve waited for the NHL’s CBA negotiations to resume, we’ve also been waiting for something else. That something else came first with the inevitable announcement by the NHL on Thursday that the first whack of 2012-13 regular season games has been canceled.

How did we get here? How did it ever come to this? There are those who believe that the owners always intended to have the talks go nowhere, lock out the players and keep them out until they cave in and accept whatever terms the league gives them in a new CBA. That’s how things worked last time.

Not everyone buys that interpretation, however. Luke DeCock of The Raleigh News Observer, for example, believes that the way ownership has acted this time differs from 2004, when teams like the Carolina Hurricanes prepared for a lockout by putting money aside, laid off employees before the summer started, declined to sign free agents, and timed many deals to expire after the 2003-04 season, in part due to the fact that “No one wanted to carry contracts into a new era, because at that time no one knew what it would look like.”

That’s not how things went this summer. The few teams that have made staff cuts only recently began laying off employees (in the case of the St. Louis Blues, they planned to trim costs anyway). A large number of contracts will carry over to the new season, whenever it starts, and free agency proved to be a bonanza, with nearly $340 million in new deals signed. (In fact, those existing and new contracts could prove problematic to the owners, with Don Fehr now wondering aloud — as he did in this Q&A with Adam Proteau of The Hockey News and to The Canadian Press — if the players will be legally obligated to play when the league reduces their contractually agreed-upon salaries, as the team owners are aiming to do.)

Nevertheless, some of those who believe that the owners didn’t intend to lock out the players now contend that the league’s initial proposal — cutting salaries 24 percent and demanding givebacks on individual contracting rights –  was a big blunder.

“The NHL horribly misunderstood how much its first ‘offer’ would anger the players and stiffen resolve,” writes Elliotte Friedman on CBC.ca.

Michael Grange on Sportsnet.ca says that’s something the league apparently now understands. “Privately they’ve acknowledged that their initial offer of a 24 per cent salary rollback and a gutting of existing contractual rights was a miscalculation,” Grange writes. “They hoped that NHLPA executive director Don Fehr would negotiate off that platform. Instead with the backdrop of the 2004-05 lockout, where the owners won a salary cap and a massive 24 per cent rollback, coming in low and hard has served to galvanize the players and severely damaged the possibility of even a modicum of trust being established between the two sides.”

Now, if it was a miscalculation on the part of the owners, their revised offers have not helped to undo the damage. In fact, very little of what the owners have done since that first offer has moved the needle on the players’ trust meter. For example:

* When talks first stalled on the core economics, the owners’ response was to break off talks on the secondary issues, which had been more successful.

* On the eve of the lockout after the Board of Governors meeting last month, Commissioner Gary Bettman told a news conference, “We are ready, willing and able to meet any time and any place for as long as they want.” But when the NHLPA asked for a meeting as the clock approached midnight on Sept. 15, the league refused and that remained the owners’ stance until last weekend.

* When Red Wings executive Jim Devellano said the owners considered the players “cattle,” he was fined by the NHL for violating By-law 17-17 (making inappropriate and unauthorized comments), but in its statement, the league didn’t apologize or express any regrets over Devellano’s characterization.

* When former Maple Leafs GM Bill Watters caused a stir this week by suggesting that Bettman might call in replacement players, there was no statement from the league that no such thing was being contemplated, and the path suggested by Watters, even though he was not a league employee, was not reflective of the NHL’s thinking.

None of these things can be considered nearly as damaging as the proposal to cut salaries and restrict player movement, but they all contributed to the dark mood surrounding the lockout. When we talk about the league’s missteps and miscalculations, we have to add them because the NHL really could have helped itself and helped defuse the tensions had it done any one of them. The owners would have appeared to be a bit more understanding at minimum and the conciliatory gestures might have eased the talks onto a more agreeable footing — and if they didn’t, so what? What would have been lost?

You can add to those errors in judgement the mixed messages brought about by those huge free agent contracts we mentioned above from owners who began insisting their business is in trouble — including the league-owned Coyotes inking Shane Doan, who turns 36 in October, for four years and $21.1 million — not long after years of telling the world how well their business had performed.

When you consider that the NHL does display admirable communication skills when it comes to keeping its corporate sponsors apprised of things, it’s unfortunate that the owners don’t extend the same consideration to their players. If you subscribe to the notion that the owners hoped to make a deal and not lock out the players, you have to say the NHL’s gaffes contributed to how we got here and the NHLPA taking a similarly intractable stance because players are now suspicious of the NHL’s motivations.

“The players now believe the owners always intended to lock them out,” writes Friedman, who adds “The owners now believe the union’s refusal to start negotiations until July meant it wanted to force the league to do it,” closing the circle of mutual mistrust. “Right now, it is total gridlock and there are still no good answers to the question: ‘What brings the thaw?’ The No. 1 response remains ‘I don’t know.’”

Grange, a diligent journalist whose stories on Sportsnet have been shaded slightly toward ownership’s direction in recent weeks, now writes, “The players aren’t ready to negotiate because they believe that whatever movement they make in the owners’ direction will simply be swallowed up and Bettman will come back to table and ask for more. After what happened seven years ago –- the players offered a 24-per-cent rollback in exchange to keep out a hard cap only for Bettman to force them to accept the roll back and the cap — and how these ‘negotiations’ started, there’s no trust.

“In that kind of atmosphere,” he continues, “what should be the normal give-and-take of bargaining is a sign of weakness. The two sides are in business together and need each other, but the players have convinced themselves this is a shakedown, and the owners’ stance has played right into their impression.”

In this environment, only bad feelings come to the surface — like Minnesota’s Zach Parise telling Michael Russo of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “You hope (the lockout) doesn’t go too long, but it’s tough to grasp when you’ve got a guy in Gary Bettman bragging every year that we’re making ‘record revenue, record revenue, record this,’ and all of a sudden they want to take a quarter of what you’ve made away. That doesn’t make sense to anybody. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in.”

This would be a time for moderates on both sides to step forward, but that doesn’t seem to be possible. In a more sensible environment, the league and the players might actually look at what each has put on the table and see some merit in it.

That’s the perspective Eric Duhatschek of The Globe and Mail takes in a story this week that looks at how the NHLPA’s proposal might actually fit into what the NHL’s stated needs are. He recalls that in 2005, the NHLPA proposed certain things to head off the cancellation of the season and that would have made “the majority of NHL teams…positively giddy (today) had they agreed to that deal.” The league rejected it, however.

“History shows that if the league had incorporated some of the NHLPA’s ideas into the last agreement, they may have been better off in the end,” Duhatschek writes. “Conclusion: Maybe they need to take a fresh look at what the NHLPA has on the table – drags on salary increases in the future, plus enhanced revenue sharing – and see if they can plug in numbers that would make it work for them.

“The alternative is to follow a script that hasn’t worked at all – win the negotiating battle and lose the CBA war. The owners got what they wanted in the last two negotiations, but miscalculated their effects, with a poor display of crystal-ball gazing. End result: They are back to the drawing board for a third time, stalled again, and this time, they better get the fix right.”

There have been lots of miscalculations by the league in this saga and they come from the same mindset, the one Jimmy Devellano articulated, the one that helped his team incur a fine: “The owners simply aren’t going to let a union push them around,” Jimmy D. said. “It’s not going to happen.”

So we’re back to having regular season games cancelled and, after seven years of good hockey and good business, the NHL is once again a kingdom with no subjects.

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  • Published On Oct 04, 2012
  • 21 comments
    NicholasMew
    NicholasMew

    Bring back the WHA.  Give the players another North American employer to choose from.  Then, when the NHL owners are dealing with no players (or lower standard ones), empty arenas, and are not making any money at all, then see what their new offer is to the players.  If I was a player, one of the terms of the new contract I would want would be to fire Bettman.

    VernUyesugi
    VernUyesugi

    How can a deal be worked out when there is no faith in Bettman. Also the mistakes he keeps making , be fair 50/50 no concessions.GET THE DEAL DONE. Walkout that's what Bettman started HMMMM 

    rwilt0042
    rwilt0042

    Lockout continues and Winter Classic gets cancelled; owners lose faith in Bettman; he is gone by spring; over summer owners collude and plan for contraction; owners choose new commish supporting contraction; new labor deal includes contraction to occur over the next 2-3 years and realignment; it takes years to repair the damage done by Bettman.

    DavidEngel
    DavidEngel

    Part of the agreement should be that Bettman resigns.

    I support the players, they have been taken to the cleaners too many times.  We love hockey because the players are the average Joe types.  They are not the spoiled brats that we see in other leagues.  

    As for me, I want to see KHL hockey broadcast here.  Let the owners see that their product is in danger.  The players can go play for other teams, but the owners will just sit around and make stupid statements.  I echo what another person said, it's time to watch college hockey.  It's time to go to my local rink and watch the kids play until the owners can realize what they had.   I'd rather see the season cancelled than the players cave in to the owners again.

    Tiger Al
    Tiger Al

    The players are losing support here in Canada, by mouthing off to the press and taking jobs from others. Why they are squandering their short careers to follow Fehr's perverted dream is beyond me.

    JeffM
    JeffM

    I understand that Bettman works for the owners. At this point, since the two sides differ so greatly on their views of how the money should be split up, wouldn't it be prudent for Bettman to talk the owners into having a third party come in, analyze the books and figure out a fair and reasonable new economic system that benefits both sides? It's clear to everyone that from Bettman to the owners, no one knows how to solve the economics problems the league faces when almost half the teams lose money year in and year out. What's really troubling is that the last lock out did not produce a safe economic environment for the league. What can we hope for now? It's time to bring in people who know what they'r doing. If this drags on, all we're going to get is a band aid solution and we'll be forced to go through this again in a few years. 

    TomvanderVoort
    TomvanderVoort

    The players think it's a shakedown because it is a shakedown. If your rationale for the salary cap is that competition is the product the league is selling, so all teams need to be able to compete on a level playing field and sill make money, then you MUST effectively revenue share. Otherwise you're sticking to to the players on both sides: we'll set a hard salary cap based on making the LOWEST REVENUE team profitable, and everyone else REALLY REALLY profitable. That's just not right and therefore not surprising that high rev. teams like the Flyers try to work around the limits of the cap to outbid lower rev. teams like the Preds for players. You want a cap? Share the money. It's the only thing that makes logical sense.

    sgrans25
    sgrans25

    It's just too bad that the NHL is quite possibly the worst run professional league. This is not a bash on hockey. I love hockey. But I hate the NHL as a league. It has become a joke under Gary Bettman's watch. It is time for him to go, or someone is going to have to try to start up a new professional league.

    JohnLaPenna
    JohnLaPenna

    All I have to say is "For the love of the game, Bettman must go" I've been saying it since 1993 and have never liked this commissioner. He is waht's wrong with the NHL as it stands.

     

    How many work stoppages does this make on his watch? I think it's up to 4. Not good at all. Maybe the owners will vote him out after they lose more money with this lockout. And don't kid yourselves, the lockout was coming no matter what.

    mefoster86
    mefoster86

    I for one hope the NHL fails entirely and College Hockey takes its place on TV. I'm tired of this. Apparently professional hockey in America isn't meant to be.

    JeffHolifield
    JeffHolifield

    why don't the players just decertify the union (the way the NFLPA did)?  This would then allow the NHLPA to pursue antitrust damages against the NHL.

    John9
    John9

    I like this focus on the league's mis-steps.  The league thought this was a business deal - how could they have been so stupid?  The players are above reproach and the league should have coddled them.  That's what the players are used to - that and "win at all costs".  Why expect them to deal with reality now?

    franpar1
    franpar1

    With the players all the way. Bettman lost an entire season once, the only sport to ever do so! That's a heck of a legacy. Owners, wise up, fans are furious, stadium support staff are out of work and furious, NBC sports network is furious because of canceled games and ad contracts. Get to table, offer some concessions and work it out! Bettman, you are the worst, owners, you're a close second!

    apack
    apack

     @sgrans25 I guess you haven't been around that long -- the NHL has been a joke going back at least to the 1970's.  It's too bad that the management keeps getting in the way of the game, since the game is awesome.

    John9
    John9

     @franpar1 An entire season was lost because Bob Goodenow decided the players weren't going to accept a salary cap and the herd followed their leader.  Plenty of them regretted that decision.

    me1
    me1

    History has proven Goodenow was right. No one debates this fact anymore. How would you like a 24% cut in pay and then a few short years later trying to be forced fed another massive cut?

    TylerRobbinsATi
    TylerRobbinsATi

     @ivanlibya  @me1 ivanlibya - you need to understand the key fundamentals of a free market industry. For those hundreds of millions of us who work in a free market system, if we are unhappy with our employer, we can leave and go to a competitor in the same industry, hopefully for more money. Pro Athletes (except in baseball) cannot do that, as the entire industry has FIXED WAGES.

     

    If you were unhappy with being FORCED into a 24% pay cut in 2004, but in return for your sacrifice you were given a percentage of revenue and then YOU as an employee did whatever you had to do (deliver season tickets to season-ticket holders residence)( participate in un-paid events that promote your company/team) all in an effort to help grow the business and ultimately grow the revenue, only to reach  point where the REVENUE was larger than the owners originally anticipated, only to be in the exact same position again where you are asked not only to take another 24% PAY CUT, but to also take a SMALLER percentage of revenue - what would you do?

     

    Stop griping about their income level too - I mean really, the average career of an NHL player is 5 years, so they sacrifice a high school education, and give up pretty well everything else in their lives from the time they are 14 until they are about 27 so that we fans can be entertained, and you have the gall to say they are forced to take a small pay cut?? 24% in 2004 and another 24% in 2012 is anything BUT small - thats huge. Average NHL Salary = 2.4 Million.

    24 % of 2.4 = $576,0002.4 Million - $576,000 = 1,824,000 Minus another 24% ($437,760) = $1,386,240 New NHL requested average salary.

     

    Thats more than a Million bucks removed from a 2.4 Million Average.

     

    You may work at McDonalds for minimum wage - would you still say "suck it up" if that wage was cut almost in half in an 8 year period???!!

    apack
    apack

     @ivanlibya  @me1 Players deserve a fair and reasonable share of the revenue they help generate.  It is about the quality of play and maintaining the best league on the planet.  If the NHL could get away with paying lower-quality players less, then they certainly would.  However, then the center of the hockey universe would move to Europe, and the NHL would drop to a second-tier league, equivalent of MLS.  This might yet happen because of this ridiculous lockout.

    ivanlibya
    ivanlibya

     @me1 I guess if I was paid millions of dollars to play a game that most of us do for a fraction of the price, I wouldn't care.  I think the players are missing a key factor here, THEY ARE EMPLOYEES.  If you don't like to get paid millions of dollars to play a game, try working at McDonalds for minimum wage for a week and see how eager they'll be to take a small cut to play in the NHL again.