Another lockout could bite Bettman in the behind

 

 
 
 

For people of reason and common sense, the circumstances of the pending NHL lockout are maddening.

A league that has grown in prosperity and wealth into a $3.3-billion business, largely on the backs of loyal hockey fans, shuts down operations in a fight over the proceeds, dangerously testing the faith of those fans yet again.

In the hours leading up to the padlocked doors, the same franchises demanding, via NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, that players accept less money and shorter-term contracts frantically dispense generous long-term deals as though they were after dinner mints.

This same commissioner that told us in 2005 that the NHL had fixed a “broken” financial model by instituting a salary cap, insists the system needs revision. Bettman’s glorious boardroom win in that last lockout was not enough.

More and more, Bettman resembles the greedy dog in Aesop’s Fable, dropping the fat, juicy steak in the water after seeing his own reflection — foolishly chasing the mirage of a second, larger steak, only to be left with none.

The steak in that fable rather neatly represents the hockey fan’s disposable income when the impasse is resolved. Will it, too, disappear, or bounce back like a loyal lap dog? Led by the royal Canadian hockey regiments — loyal to the point of being abused, some would say — fans came back like trusty pets, despite the loss of the entire season 2004-05.

There is no assurance that will happen again in hockey’s Lockouts R Us world. The landscape was different then. In addition to returning to action, the NHL of 2005-06 presented a vastly improved product with invigorating rules and enforcement, a faster skill game more or less devoid of the clutch-and-grab slog fest it had become before the lockout.

This time around, hockey will return to the same product it had before this latest expected stoppage, and so the potential damage is two-fold. Minus the sizzle and sex appeal of a new product, fans will be asked to return to the same-old while bearing fresh wounds on top of those barely healed scars from 2004-05 (not to mention the previous lockout of 1994, adding up to a hat trick of labour messes under Gary’s rule). Judging by the #nolockout video that has gone viral on the internet, fans might truly be “Mad as hell and ... not going to take this anymore.”

“The Bettman” as Washington Capitals star forward Alex Ovechkin calls him, has never been more infuriating — and this after 20 years of driving average hockey fans crazy. He rattles players, the game’s heroes, but coddles the hopeless Phoenix Coyotes, now run by the league (so generous to dole out $21.2 million to Shane Doan!).

The plight of Phoenix, alongside the marginal existence of other southern U.S. markets, should make the players revenue-sharing proposal a handy starting point in Collective Bargaining Agreement talks. But no, Bettman wants the players to give in once again, as though salary restraint were the only solution. How can that be when teams can’t resist handing out large contracts again and again? Bettman’s answer to that, of course, is to claw back on those salaries as required.

Down the hall, players champion Donald Fehr presents a compelling case, although any anti-Bettman stance would look good against the hardline position of the NHL. The players have offered to give up some of their current 57-per-cent revenue share, but don’t sense the other side is listening, or interested in negotiating.

In 2004, Bettman had the public on his side while he instituted the salary cap. This time around, he is taking it from all sides, from an exasperated public, from media, and even from such respected insiders as Ken Dryden, the former Toronto Maple Leafs president.

In a revealing essay published Friday, Dryden exposed Bettman as a power-hungry control freak obsessed with winning these CBA battles. In 2005, the players caved. This time, apparently more united under a savvy negotiator in Fehr who brought labour peace to baseball (though it took a strike in 1994), the players aren’t as willing to buckle. Not yet. Not without a willing partner across the table.

There is a deal to get done — my sense is that it will get done — but not without some give on the ownership side. Bettman is counting on the players caving, yet again. He is counting on fans forgiving, yet again.

While it doesn’t get quoted nearly as often as the “Mad as Hell” quote, the Howard Beale character said something else in that diatribe from the movie Network.

He said, “I’m a human being ... my life has value.”

Bettman and Fehr would do well to consider that line as a comment from hockey fans and NHL support staff. Their lives, their contributions to the game and business of hockey, have value.

wscanlan@ottawacitizen.comtwitter.com@HockeyScanner

 
 
 
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