NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman talks to reporters following negotiations with NHL Players' Association officials in Toronto last August. The league on Friday cancelled its annual all-star weekend in Columbus and nixed regular season games through Dec. 14.
Photograph by: Chris Young, THE CANADIAN PRESS
VANCOUVER — So dispiriting are the leaders charged with saving hockey that Black Friday was no darker than the last three months.
America hardly needs the busiest shopping day of the year to ignore the National Hockey League, but the self-marginalizing league took the opportunity anyway to cancel more games, including the All-Star Weekend in Columbus. This is the first good thing to come from the lockout because nobody wants to go to Columbus in January so the NHL, a league teetering on a very high ledge, can celebrate itself.
Friday was also notable for NHL Players’ Association boss Donald Fehr, otherwise busy writing the epilogue on his autobiography at hockey’s expense, saying something sensible.
“On Wednesday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said that the league is losing $18-20 million per day during the lockout,” Fehr said, warming up his calculator. “Therefore, two more weeks of cancelled games far exceeds the current economic gap.”
That gap on core economics, the difference between what the union wants and what owners are willing to pay to compensate players under contract as the sides transition to a 50/50 split on revenue, is $182 million. That sum represents barely five per cent of annual revenue, had the NHL started on time in September and not embarked on a course towards destruction.
Surely, these sides are not going to scuttle a season that would have been worth about $3.5 billion in its entirety because they can’t bridge a gap of $182 million.
It’s enough to make you miss the Levitt Report, in all its skewed and pointy-headed splendour.
You remember that economic treatise from 2004, before Bettman completed his lockout hat trick?
Arthur Levitt, former chairman of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, was paid handsomely by the NHL to assess the league’s finances and provide a report that Bettman used to justify the lockout and pursuit of a radically different economic model.
There were press conferences and pie charts and furrowed brows as Bettman gravely described the economic crisis and portrayed the league as on the brink of financial ruin.
The Levitt Report became a kind of navigation beacon during the Black Fridays and Black Wednesdays and Saturdays and Thursdays in the winter of 2004-05 when the NHL became the first “major” professional sports league to cancel an entire season. At least we knew what they were fighting about.
There was no case for war this time, no weapons of mass financial destruction justifying yet another lockout by owners. No key visuals, no thorough explanations by Bettman, no illusion of financial transparency from the NHL.
There is no navigation beacon in this lockout, which looks hopelessly adrift.
Decertification is suddenly hotter than Justin Bieber, and each has about equal substance. The union is fanning media speculation that the NHLPA may abolish itself. Theoretically, this would make the owners’ lockout illegal and turn every player into an independent contractor free to negotiate whatever he can without league-wide encumbrances such as a salary cap.
Decertification could be a very good thing for players, who commanded 75 per cent of revenue before there was a salary-cap, except those playing for weak franchises, which rather than causing a lockout every few years would lose the social safety net provided by the NHL. Major pro sports must be the only domain where billionaire owners, nearly all of them conservative, cry like socialists for protection against free-market forces.
In the short term, decertification would address the chronic and shameful shortage of slick litigation lawyers because NHL owners and players would be in court for a while.
But at least decertification, however remote, gives Fehr and the NHLPA an exit strategy. They have a way out of this lockout.
What is Bettman’s exit strategy?
Please tell me owners have a grand plan beyond merely waiting for players to fully capitulate, which they’re very good at but don’t appear willing to do this time. Because at the moment, Bettman’s game plan looks a little thin.
Perhaps owners thought this would be a quick war, an invasion of Grenada, to get what they want. The boys would all be at their home rinks for Thanksgiving, and owners back in their counting houses when the serious money started to flow near the end of the fall football frenzy in the U.S.
But here we are, hockey cancelled until at least the middle of December, snow on the ground in places and each side dug in for the long haul. This is what we signed up for? In a sense, the dispute is far worse now than when Bettman triggered it in September.
Three months into the lockout, the owners and players have succeeded mostly in destroying what little trust remained in their “partnership” while co-strangling a golden goose and causing far more lasting damage to their business than they did in 2004. They are quickly poisoning the well from which they drink.
It is, as others have noted, the dumbest dispute in pro sports history.
There is a $182-million valley to cross, but the sides aren’t really talking and, as of late Friday, had no plans to negotiate further. Tell me again what they are fighting about.
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