NHL lockout produces a deal but no sense of satisfaction
AP Photo - Paul Sancya
Let’s start with the simplest analogy. There were no winners in the 113-day NHL lockout. Owners, players, fans, commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly, NHLPA executive director Don Fehr, all have been scorched in some way.
That said, any deal that took as long as this one did to come together was hardly a simple exercise and demands a stringent analysis.
Since it was the league that initiated the lockout, and consequently held the leverage in the early negotiations, they should have been clear-cut winners. They weren’t. Yes, they got term limits on individual contracts, yes, they will take a greater cut of the hockey-related revenue and yes, they have the prospect of 10 years of labour peace, with an option to kick the deal aside after eight years.
But if past is prologue, expect general managers to probe this deal for loopholes that will allow them to sign players to big contracts. With a salary floor of $44 million, that still gives the bottom-feeding franchises plenty of loot to get silly with when free-agent bidding starts each summer. The league may crave cost certainty, but this isn’t the deal that will deliver it.
The players never emerge from these labour spats looking good, too many hockey fans angered over the millions paid to grown men to play a game most of those fans insist they would play for free. The players also lost money on this deal, with the revenue split and the lowered salary cap (to $64.3 million). They did get a better pension plan and seem a more cohesive union. The latter may become of greater importance eight years from now.
No one who paid attention to these talks would suggest that players and owners have fostered a winsome relationship. These were acrimonious dealings that occasionally rolled into the gutter and tipped into theatre of the absurd. Until each side learns to work together respectfully with their counterpart, the NHL is destined to do this tango again, in eight or 10 years.
It has been fashionable to think NHL commissioner Gary Bettman won’t be around to preside over that scenario but only he can answer that. Outside of any room that holds the NHL’s board of governors, Bettman is reviled but as long as he maintains a majority of the board’s support -- and wants to do the job -- he will stay on as commissioner. Even if he did resign, Daly would be his presumptive replacement and he has done little to distinguish himself from Bettman. His image has been nicked up by his emotional outburst about five-year player contracts being the “hill we die on,” then presiding over an agreement that established seven- and eight-year deals.
It would seem highly unlikely Fehr is in charge of the players’ association through the balance of this deal. Fehr’s legacy lies in what he did for baseball players as the head of their union. He proved obstinate, evasive and exasperating to the league and hockey fans during the negotiations but he did keep the players unified throughout, no small feat given the recent history of the NHLPA.
Ultimately, though, it is the fans who will have the greatest say on how this collective bargaining agreement is graded, even though they routinely ignore that power and morph into Stepford Wives mode. There could be no more significant jolt to players and owners than a fan revolt or a show of fan indifference, however limited. Either display seems nearly impossible in Canada or in the higher profile NHL markets in the U.S., such as Boston, New York and Pittsburgh. In the struggling cities, indifference would be difficult to gauge.
Fans grumble and grouse while the talks slog along but march back obediently when the games resume, their griping largely forgotten. Hockey fans blame Bettman for three lockouts during his reign as commissioner but forgiving fans have been his silent ally. It’s what allows the league to reuse the lockout strategy, the knowledge the fans will be there when the shackles come off.
We’ll see if that is the case this time.