Could this be the new NHL?
Photograph by: ..., ...
VANCOUVER - There may be a handful -- a small handful -- of National Hockey League owners who would not soil themselves in fear of what would happen if all existing player contracts were voided by the dissolution of the NHL Players Association.
But what glorious chaos it would be.
It won’t happen, of course, because the two sides in the ongoing labour war would never give the media a gift so sensational.
Still, think of the stories: A frantic orgy of free-agent madness, rich teams stockpiling talent with no salary caps, mid-market teams scrambling to keep some semblance of what they have, deep-pocketed competitive failures seeing a chance to hit a sudden home run, a few other franchises utterly driven out of business ... the competition and carnage would be more interesting than a lot of NHL playoff series.
The league would definitely lose some teams, which admittedly makes it worth fantasizing about.
But when Dan Cleary tells the Detroit media that this week’s NHL players’ vote to disassociate (temporarily, no doubt) from their union should pass “overwhelmingly ... if its not 99.8%, I’d be disappointed,” you can be sure of one thing, and one thing only.
It’s a steaming pile of horsebleep.
You couldn’t get 99.8% of NHL players to agree that there are seven days in a week. You certainly couldn’t get the required two-thirds majority of players to agree to a “disclaimer of interest” if they ever, for one minute, seriously thought the NHL was going to risk a judge’s declaration that every player contract in the league would be null and void.
So it’s a ruse, a ploy, a bargaining tactic meant to apply leverage to talks that are going nowhere, just as the NHL’s class-action/bad faith bargaining suit filed last week is a ploy, meant to pre-empt the union’s ploy -- pretty much a continuation of the last 27 ploys, only now they’ll be presenting their respective cases to an actual court, rather than merely emoting in the court of public opinion.
Even legal experts have no idea whether handing the whole mess to a battalion of lawyers to sort out before a judge or two -- the owners filed suit in New York; the players could yet countersue in a California court (or somewhere else) -- might end the lockout sooner than if the two sides just continued to flip the bird at one another and wait for the mid-January drop-dead date to force their respective hands.
Personally, I’d love to see what would happen if the players filed their suit in Canada, where the blood pressure is as high as the temperature is low. But that would never happen because odds are a Canadian judge would be a hockey fan, and -- in the context of this leverage war between the mercenary mini-corporations and the soulless maxi-corporations -- neither side is about to put its fate in the hands of someone who actually likes the game more than the money.
That’s where Gary Bettman and his Proskauer Rose lockout strategists got it right. They’re going to argue in Manhattan before a judge who’s a fan of the New York Yankees, the fattest of the fat-ass corporate giants in professional sports.
Honestly, the term “disclaimer of interest” should have been reserved for the fans in half of the NHL’s markets. That’s right. We’re guessing as many as 15 of the 30 cities have utterly tuned out, and the teams will have a helluva time trying to fill those buildings when the game returns.
Not here, though. In the Great White North, we accept these periodic betrayals and try to pass the time between games as best we can ... even if it’s nine months between.
Someone wrote that these court filings could signal the end of the innocence for hockey. That’s pretty funny.
Anyone who has more than a few tattered threads of innocence left has been hiding under a rock since before Peter Pocklington traded Wayne Gretzky, and Eric Lindros rejected Quebec, and Bob Goodenow arrived on his mission to make the owners pay for the sins of Alan Eagleson and didn’t care how many franchises he drove to the brink in the process.
All that’s happening now is a further erosion of those myths we once clung to as if they were absolute truths: that hockey players really are the best, the humblest, the most accommodating, the most human, of pro athletes. So much different from baseball and basketball players. So passionate, so unselfish ...
And that owners are really guardians of a public trust -- not so much businessmen as hockey fans who want the same things the fan does, but just happen to have the money to make them happen. Good people who “give back” to the community.
We know more about that now than we ever wanted to know. We know that most owners are themselves charity seekers from the public purse, strip-miners of their local markets, pyramid schemers who have gotten rich selling dreams to suckers in places never meant for hockey and now complain that the game’s economics don’t make sense.
We know that players, through their agents, have conspired with the very owners they now profess to despise, to subvert the salary structure to the point where the league feels it has to close every loophole, triple-lock the vault, build an idiot-proof collective bargaining agreement that gives the owners every advantage ... knowing that over time, the idiots will muck it up again, anyway.
If it were only Bettman and Jeremy Jacobs and the league office and its scorched-earth legal strategy on one side, and the Brothers Fehr and their hard-done-by comrades in the union on the other, it would be a victimless crime.
Two villains, and no good guy. They deserve each other.
But there’s a whole sub-stratum suffering here: Single-mom ushers, concession workers, ticket sellers and popcorn hawkers, “non-essential” team front office employees, bar-and-grill operators, waiters and parking attendants ... and real charities, not just the few you hear about, that NHL hockey legitimately supports.
I wonder if the two sides view most of them as parasites, living off the avails of the owners’ investment and the players’ sweat? Or perhaps as collateral damage. Sad, of course, but inevitable.
All wars have victims. The big picture, the mini-corporations and the maxi-corporations seem to be saying, is way more important than the little people it hurts.
These are the heroes whose pockets you will be lining, 10 minutes after they settle.
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