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Gary Bettman’s lockout apology: what he should have said

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By Stu Hackel

With his expression of sorrow for the lockout he engineered, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman hopes to turn the page and put the focus of the fans, players, sponsors and media back on the ice where, he said, the attention belongs.

What he stopped short of expressing was a pledge that he would commit to working with the NHLPA to find a way of preventing anything like what we just went through from happening again.

Addressing the players, the league’s business partners, and the fans, he said, “I know that an explanation or an apology will not erase the hard feelings that have built up over the past few months, but I owe you apology, nevertheless.” It was a nice sentiment, but if he really wanted to erase the hard feelings, the best thing he could have done was make some sort of statement that this third lockout was wrong for the sport, that it was too damaging and the league was committed to finding a better way of fixing problems in its labor relations. (Red Light: NHL in dire need of labor relations fix.)

That Bettman made no such remark in his prepared statement is telling. Getting along with players union was not a priority. The best he could offer came afterward: his hope that a better relationship would develop over time. He acknowledged that the lockout “caused frustration, disappointment and even suffering to a lot of people who have supported the National Hockey League in many different ways.” He didn’t say he would do all he could to avoid inflicting all that on them again.

The first reporter to question him asked, “Is there any aspect of this deal or perhaps the process that led to signing it which makes you believe it won’t happen again, meaning another lockout, the next time you have to negotiate one?” He responded, “Well, first of all, without getting too specific, the fact is, it’s a 10-year deal. The union, I believe, under the framework and leadership that Don (Fehr) has provided, will now have greater stability. We’ve had five different (NHLPA) executive directors in the last eight years. We believe that with this agreement and the length of this agreement and what it provides and the way the union has reconstituted itself and the players have come together, I think that bodes well for the future relationship.”

Later on, he was asked to be more specific: “What do you do and the union do together over the next eight to 10 years to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” And he answered, “We build a relationship. As I said before, we have, we think for the first time in almost eight years, a stable union with strong leadership, and that gives us an opportunity to work together as partners and build the relationship and build trust, which can only happen over time.”

Bettman had invoked the PA’s leadership instability to explain the difficulties the league had reaching a deal during negotiations. It’s a convenient catch-all explanation and it shifts responsibility for any failures to the other side, but the fact is this would have been an excellent time for a league initiative committing to a new era of labor relations. We didn’t hear one.

That doesn’t mean Bettman is wrong and the better relationship he describes can’t happen through “working together as partners” but the moment we live in feels more like the post-WWII Cold War, where the superpowers only averted open conflict because of mutually assured destruction. This would have been a perfect time for the league to display some leadership and move away from brinksmanship, to take things in the other direction.

Without such a clear statement, suspicions will linger that a fourth lockout might be in the cards in eight, nine or 10 years when this CBA can be terminated. How can anyone be assured that the owners won’t come back and lock out the players again for a bigger percentage of Hockey Related Revenue, or to change its definition in order to increase their share, or seek to curtail individual contracting rights for free agency, arbitration and the Entry Level system they targeted this time around? That distrust was front and center during this segment of Hockey Night in Canada Radio heard over NHL Home Ice Satellite Radio immediately after Bettman’s press conference. With cynicism and sarcasm overflowing, former NHL goalies Glenn Healy and Kelly Hrudey and host Gord Stellick provided a shocking counterpoint to even the mere apology that the commissioner extended. Clearly something stronger was needed.

The NHL and its clubs may offer all sorts of freebies or financial inducements to make fans feel better about the league after the five-month lockout that has delayed the season until Jan. 19 and reduced it to 48 games. But the best way to demonstrate regret would have been an up-front declaration on the part of the league that it would like to engage the NHLPA in preventing an encore of this episode. Gary Bettman saying “I’m sorry” on Wednesday will have meant nothing if we have to go through this yet again.

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  • Published On Jan 10, 2013
  • 18 comments
    mhsettelen
    mhsettelen

    With all the time they have had to study the Premier League which has been all over our screens for months now; how is it possible that it hasn't been realized by the Commish et alia, that the threat of relegation for the bottom clubs, is what spurs performance to the very peak level!

    Jim51
    Jim51

    I agree this was all the owners doing. I don't even blame Bettman, he was the owners front man. I am boycotting the first 30 games of the season to send a message to the owners. We can't let this happen again.

    Rick in Huahin!
    Rick in Huahin!

    This was all the NHL's doing, from the lockout in the beginning  to their complete mismanagement of the league and their own teams!!!!

    The players owe no one an apology!!!! They are terrible business men and seek help from the PA to correct the problems they made!!!!

    RobertoPierce
    RobertoPierce

    this is a horribly one-side article and, although, I do see your points; I think you are pointing your finger in the wrong direction with respect to the long-term view.

    Everyone is sorry - to think that going to a 50:50 split, contract limits, and shortened contract lengths (no to mention the salary cap last time) was somehow mean and selfish on the owners part is really missing the boat.  Why will it be better next time ??????  Because the system is closer to long-term stability and sustainability.  The player were WAY out there and had to be reined in for the good of the 30 team system.  The 30 team system is needed to grow the sport.  If you don't think that is working then just google "US junior hockey team wins Gold" and read about last week.   Hockey is doing very very well, as it should, and it's growth depends on a stable NHL - thank you Gary Bettman.

    Iowa
    Iowa

    Stu: thank you for your terrific coverage of hockey and, unfortunately, the lockout (unfortunate in that it happened). It's so refreshing to read reasoned commentary and debate in your columns and in the comments below them from fans (and your responses), rather than the flaming or just apathy so many Internet stories contain or produce. Didn't enjoy the lockout at all and will eventually return to watching hockey after awhile (not immediately) but did enjoy reading the stories and analysis of it.

    CharlieTeljeur
    CharlieTeljeur

    I think he's saying a lot in citing the instability of the PA as his reasoning for labor unrest. In other words (paraphrasing Bettman):"With the NHLPA not having a consistent voice we (as owners) weren't sure how far we could push them and how soon they would crumble under our threats/demands. Now, having seen that, under Donald Fehr, the NHLPA is both united and resolute, we (as owners) have to take them seriously when they speak."

     

    In other words, the PA has stopped playing the historic role of patsy. Thus, both sides can fast forward through the bluster and semantics and know full well that the people on the other side of the table are serious this time. Thus labor peace is created because both sides have weapons they are very willing to fire, peace via a Cold War of sorts.

    Lyle F
    Lyle F

    His apology is about as meaningful as a guy saying to his girlfriend, "I'm sorry I gave you a STD. But it's not my fault. I got it from the girl I cheated with. But I still love you, so come here, baby."

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @RobertoPierce Sorry, Roberto, but I can't agree. First, why should we believe that the results of this lockout guarantee stability and sustainability? Just because Mr. Bettman says so? How do you know that eight years from now, the owners don't come back and say, "We've got problems with how much the players make and their contracting rights are causing us to overpay them. We need to reduce their share of HRR and take away their arbitration rights and not pay so much for players who come out of the Entry Level system." We could be in for this all over again.

     

    And I cannot agree with your premise that the players were "way out there and had to be reigned in." One has to ask why this lockout was necessary in the first place. Even the NHL itself told people it was only seeking a tweak. They didn't believe the players were "out there." That may have been true in the last lockout, when the players received in excess of 70 percent of the revenue. So the owners locked them out, lost the season and installed the system they wanted, which they said would grow the game. And it did. The players share went down to 54 percent of HRR (which is a smaller pool than all revenue) and grew to 57 percent because the business prospered. The league had record revenues and franchise values have never been higher for most teams. Not every club was doing well and some of that is the fault of the clubs because they put horrible teams on the ice that fans didn't want to see. You can't blame the old CBA or the players' share of revenue for that. This was the system the owners wanted, then they suddenly didn't like it and they were again going to lock out the players to change it.

     

    The point of this story was to urge the league to find a better way to achieve stability than by stopping the game each time a CBA expires. My belief is that the NHL has not figured out how to conduct itself in labor relations since Alan Eagleson left the scene. Each CBA since has been negotiated through a work stoppage, including three lockouts under Gary Bettman. That is the league's way of settling matters and, as a result, it has badly damaged a business that was never doing better and alienated a large number of fans and sponsors, not to mention angered the players. I would like to see the NHL commit itself to figuring out how to settle its differences with the players without locking them out. It starts with good-faith negotiating and there is ample reason to cite the owners approach to these talks as not always meeting that standard, beginning with their first offer to the players in July and all the way up to the final days when they altered agreement documents.

     

    So I think a new path must be taken because these continued lockouts are not the way to grow the game. I think you are a bit confused here: What you see as a positive -- the US juniors winning the WJC -- had absolutely nothing to do with this lockout or any lockout or contentious CBA talks. It has to do with stability. Lockouts and awful relations with players don't produce stability. These things turn off fans of all ages and keeps the game out of the spotlight. That's not how to attract young athletes who might want to consider becoming hockey players.

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @Iowa Thanks very much, Iowa. It's very gratifying for me to hear that and I'm appreciative. 

     

    As you know from the comments (and you don't know about the emails) yours is not a unanimous opinion, but that's fine. Everyone is entitled to their views and I was happy to respond and engage the readers in the discussion as long as they were civil and reasoned and stayed within the bounds of the guidelines. Overwhelmingly, our readers did that and I think we have had excellent exchanges that helped us all understand the issues better which, after all, is the goal.

     

    I see no purpose served by the flaming that takes place in some blog comments sections when we can use this forum to trade thoughts and understand each other better. That's rewarding for everyone and so thanks to all the readers who have taken part in the dialogue.

     

    Now, I'm looking forward to writing a little more about the game.

    Rick in Huahin!
    Rick in Huahin!

     @CharlieTeljeur The Pa is not very stable with Fehr helping them out! They are on track to becoming a good PA, as in Baseball!!!! But will take more time and tweaking!!!!

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @CharlieTeljeur I don't see it that way, Charlie, because first of all, it was obvious fairly early on in this lockout that the players were not going to fold. Every trick the owners tried to employ to divide the union -- like accusing Fehr of misleading them or not telling them the real offers, or allowing the GMs to talk directly to the players or publishing details of an offer even before the NHLPA membership had a chance to review it -- flopped. Each one, and many maneuvers afterward, only served to unify the players more behind Fehr's leadership. They should have been taking them seriously long before they did. Instead, they continued fighting this lockout with the tactics of the last one and lacked the recognition of the union's new strength and the tactical flexibility to adjust to that. Divide and conquer worked well for them before -- they were the ones who broke the union and turned it into the mess it became. But that mess is long over and can't be used as an excuse for not reaching an agreement earlier in this lockout or extending more than an apology for it.

     

    Secondly, now that the NHL knows (or should, anyway) that the union is stable and no longer a patsy, why couldn't Bettman have said on Wednesday "Let's try to find ways to avoid this in the future. Let's just chart a new path starting now and figure out a way to settle our problems differently."? That would have been real leadership by the league and Bettman and a recognition that this continual warfare -- a lockout at the end of every CBA  -- is increasingly damaging. Not doing that only makes people wonder about what's going to happen next time. I think we can all hope that they have a better relationship, but I would have much preferred to hear Bettman or Jacobs say, "We would like to call on the NHLPA to help us find ways to not have a repeat of this in the future." To my mind, that would have been the best expression of regret.

     

    Good to hear from you, by the way. Hope you're doing well.

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @HWC  Thanks very much. I've replaced the other video.

    StephenCurtis
    StephenCurtis

     @Lyle F it wasn't only his fault. The union refused, I mean refused to negotiate at all despite efforts by the nhl more then a yr before the deal expired until the last minute before october and games were due to start. Fehr said it was because he had to get to know the perameters and his players and what they wanted. 

    truth is they were hoping to work under old deal this year and put of negotiation. the only way the owners coudl force them to table was with lockout and even then when nhl would make proposals the union woudl show up 3-4 hrs late to meetings and not answer on any subject the nhl brought up, Im not blaming just the union , god knows owners stubborness was just as bad. But the players were just and guilty and im tired of this its all on the nhl mentality. If fehr and the players had even tried to negotiate prior to october we might never had a lockout. 

    RobertoPierce
    RobertoPierce

    wow, you said a mouthful....  

    i agree with you on several points, but i am not confused.  Let's skip to your last paragraph (mostly because i need to work right now).  The US juniors included players from states like California and Florida.  This, IMHO, is a direct result of our current 30 team system establishing itself into "non-traditional" markets.  With the NHL team comes local ice rinks and youthful interest and development.  There were cries that if some teams were not making money, they should reduce the number of teams primarily by nixing those south of the Mason-Dixon line (to maintain the player salaries and contract loading that was occurring).   Not reining in both the player salaries and the owners contrat-mismanagement (it's a committee remember and not always under control or working together) was necessary to stabilize the 30 team system for the future.....which agrees with your point above.  

     

    The big fixes are done and the system will be healthy and stable into the future.  There will not be a big battle next time, just tweaks, but we will both have to wait to see - loser buys a 12-pack of Molson.

    All the best, regardless

    R

    CharlieTeljeur
    CharlieTeljeur

     @Stu Hackel But in all that I think the NHL really lacked respect for the PA which was quite evident when Bettman got all flustered in that one press conference (I don't recall the date). Lawyers don't show emotion, only ill-prepared ones do. That was a tantrum. I think they now realize that they have an equally adept negotiating partner and, given the history of the PA, that's a new animal for them to adapt to.

     

    The NHL are old cronies for the most part and they only seem to learn from very obvious errors - this one being in not taking Donald Fehr and the players seriously. I mean if a management group can inflict this kind of PR damage to league that was on the upswing and if they couldn't see how blowing the chance to have the Outdoor Classic in The Big House is a TERRIBLE misstep, what makes anyone think they have any real insight into how to strategically negotiate? They are simply a group and a league badly out of touch with the realities of the world, in particular the sports world and they paid dearly for it.

     

    Having said all that, they now know (my point) the gravitas of the NHLPA. A hard lesson to learn but (I think) they're now through with stare-downs and hollow threats ("This is the hill we will die on.") because that's a high school strategy and this ain't high school.

    Stu Hackel
    Stu Hackel moderator

     @StephenCurtis I think you have some of your facts wrong here. First of all, the players certainly negotiated, or tried to, before October. In fact, they presented a counter-offer in August to the owners' first regressive offer in July -- and it contained a few provisions, such as the Industry Growth Fund for revenue sharing, that ended up being part of the new CBA.

     

    What they were not going to do was negotiate off a proposal from the NHL that was designed to cut their salaries another 24 percent on top of the 24 percent reduction they took in the prior CBA and having all their individual contracting rights drastically cut back. In fact, Bill Daly has since said that this first owners' proposal was a big mistake on the part of the league because it enraged the players to the point where they did not want to negotiate off it and that's what slowed down the process. So blaming the players for that is something even the league does not do.

     

    You are not wrong in saying that the NHLPA wouldn't negotiate if by negotiating you mean agree to what the league threw in front of them and demanded they accept. Time and time again, the owners gave the players proposals that were unacceptable to them and said they were the best the league could do, take it or leave it. Why should the players have agreed to that? That's not negotiating, that's presenting ultimatums And each time, the owners came back with better proposals because what they had previously offered really was not their best offer. Fehr recognized that the league could reasonably offer more and the owners were trying to repeatedly lowball the players.

     

    In fact, you can just as easily say the stalling was done by ownership because they proposed things the players wouldn't accept -- and they knew they were not going to be accepted because they frequently leaked those proposals to their supporters in the media -- sometimes even before the players saw them -- in an effort to pressure the players, making it seems as if what they were being offered was reasonable, when it was -- from the players perspective -- not.

     

    Now, I'll agree with you that showing up late was stalling and gamesmanship on the part of the union, and it didn't help the process. But as for your belief that the lockout could have ended much sooner had the players just negotiated, you are saying they should have taken a bad deal to end the lockout and that's why the  players are at fault. I don't find any fault with someone not accepting a bad offer, especially since they knew a better one was coming if they waited.