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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