Time for the NHL & NHLPA to make a deal

Dec 10, 2012 by

Time for the NHL & NHLPA to make a deal

This past week hockey fans felt the rollercoaster ride of the current collective bargaining agreement negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA.  Early in the week optimism swept the newswire, with some reporting a deal was imminent and that hockey would be played by years end.  However, after Gary Bettman’s emotional press conference Thursday night, where he expressed his frustrations about the collective bargaining process, he gave the impression that the two sides are much farther apart than what had been reported earlier.   Today the league followed up this sentiment by cancelling all games through December 30 and observers of the sport are left to wonder what is really going on in this negotiation and whether this is all theatrics or if the season is on the cusp of being lost.  For the average fan, it’s hard to understand the process or pinpoint a villain; on the surface it’s easy to blame Gary Bettman and the owners since they initiated the lockout.   Bettman has for a long time been a whipping boy among hockey fans, especially in Canada. His otherness has never been fully embraced and often been a source of criticism.  He cannot seem to escape the perception that he is anti-Canadian, whether it’s him being American born, or not coming from a hockey background or learning his trade in the NBA, there are many reasons fans have found reason not to accept him.   Even in moments of celebration he is subject to criticism; when he awards the Stanley Cup at season’s end to the winning team boos can be heard among fans in attendance aimed at Bettman because he is so disliked.  Despite the fact he has been commissioner of the NHL since 1993, fair or not, people still question his loyalty to the game, but he is not the enemy in this dispute.  He represents the wants and needs of 30 NHL owners and clearly they have instructed Bettman to make dramatic changes to the new collective bargaining agreement.

Although it’s easy to lay blame on Bettman, he is not solely to blame or deserving of the brunt of criticism in this negotiation.  When respected broadcaster John Shannon reports 18 teams lost money last year, it’s clear that there must be significant change to the current collective bargaining agreement and the players must be willing to take on some of the short-term burden for the long-term health of the league.   What those changes entail are for league and player representatives to decide. Certainly if the league contracted half a dozen teams and moved a few franchises to cities like Quebec and Toronto the financial health of the league should significantly improve.  However, how many jobs would be lost along the way?  How many markets would lose interest in the sport altogether?  If we include players, coaches, trainers, scouts, and support staff, thousands of jobs would be lost and the long-term growth of the NHL would face a major setback.  But this isn’t the type of dramatic change that is going to occur in the near future.  The league wants to build a foundation that allows for all existing teams to succeed – even in markets that appear to have a little chance of doing so.

As a Canadian, it’s often difficult to stomach watching games involving the Florida Panthers or the Phoenix Coyotes, but if these teams are going to be a part of the league they must be given an opportunity to work within a system that is financially viable.  We can question whether or not these franchises should have ever been given a team in the first place, but can we blame the NHL for trying to grow its sport in unconventional markets?  It’s worked in cities like San Jose, Dallas and even Nashville.  There have been failures along the way, like the Atlanta Thrashers, but the players don’t have to worry about such things, if they are good enough to be in the NHL they are getting paid market value regardless of the city and the financial troubles of a given organization.

Clearly the issues facing the long-term health of the league are more nuanced and complicated than I’ve implied.  The reality is, for the average fan, it’s difficult to make sense of any of it.  Billionaires and millionaires are fighting over parameters of an agreement each feel are vital for their representatives.  What each side needs to understand is that the longer this lockout extends the more apathetic and disillusioned its fan base becomes.  The more time we see Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman on podiums justifying their cause, the less fans care. The truth is none of us want to hear about it.  As great a sport as hockey is, the business side of things should never be at the forefront of the league.  Fans don’t want to be reminded of the perceived greed of over entitled athletes or affluent owners fighting for a larger piece of the multi-billion dollar pie.  Fans just want to watch players like Sidney Crosby make incredible plays and watch their favourite teams compete and challenge for a chance to win the Stanley Cup.  Fans want to be entertained and not be reminded of the realities of life and neither the league nor its players are gaining sympathy from the average fan who takes home just over 40,000 a year.

What is certain is that the NHL and the NHLPA are treading a fine line with this ongoing dispute.  The previous lockout is only seven years behind us and still very much fresh in the eyes of its loyal supporters.  The fans may have returned after the last lockout, but will they tolerate another lost season?  Underestimating the negative impact of taking the fans loyalty for granted could prove costly.  In Canada, the fan base will always return, but in cities like Phoenix and Tampa will they be so forgiving?    We’re probably still two months away from losing a shortened 2012-13 NHL season; it’s hard to fathom that the NHL could be lost for an entire season for the second time in less than a decade – but that possibility increases every day there isn’t a settlement.  If that should occur the leadership of the NHL and NHLPA should seriously be called into question, because the game is not being governed with its best interests in mind.  Even if a resolution should happen in the coming weeks it might be time for change, but that’s a topic for another discussion, for now let’s hope that everyone comes to their senses and a deal is consummated that makes sense for both sides as soon as possible.

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