By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Aug. 23) – Only one factor truly discourages awareness and understanding of the labor mechanism that involves the National Hockey League and its players: Emotion. Were it somehow feasible to remove – or even limit – bias and predisposition, this matter would fall into place accordingly.
Instead, lines are drawn and positions become entrenched. Gary Bettman is deemed to be anti-Canadian, with no awareness of the passion that governs hockey’s most sacred followers. The players are spoiled; pampered and over-compensated for their leisurely service. Mystery heightens only when observers believe that such triviality enters the process; in fact, it bears no weight on the labor mechanism whatsoever.
Bettman’s role, therefore, is terribly misunderstood. As commissioner of the NHL and the apostle for its 30 owners, he has but one function: to cut the most lop-sided deal he can on behalf of his employers. Under that obligation, Bettman is neither preoccupied with “caring” for the fans nor constructing a “partnership” with the players. He is paid more than $8 million annually by the owners to accommodate their interests – in this case, the largest attainable cut of the NHL’s economic pie. In no conceivable way should that invite scorn; the commissioner is simply doing his job.
This was bluntly communicated – on Thursday afternoon – by my friend, Chris Johnston, who does a terrific job covering the NHL for Canadian Press. In a Tweet, Chris wrote: “The CBA talks haven’t moved beyond ‘philosophy’ stage. Owners want more money just because. Players feel they sacrificed last time.” Chris is bang-on: the players sacrificed a lot in 2004-05, including one full season of their careers. Given how that “negotiation” ended, your hockey heroes will need to cough up even more this time, or they’ll be granted another indefinite leave.
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As mentioned here on several occasions – without prejudice – the owners are driving the bus; they moved squarely and incontrovertibly behind the wheel in the previous labor exercise. Though the 2005 CBA, and introduction of a salary cap, did not provide ownership a smidgen of “cost-certainty” (there remains an enormous cash-generating gulf between traditional and non-traditional markets), it did show, without question, which side was in control. The players deployed their lone hammer in the first NHL labor disruption: a brief strike just prior to the 1992 Stanley Cup tournament. As the most-recent lockout dragged on, pundits warned that the owners would ultimately concede, not wishing to forgo lucrative playoff revenue.
That argument sailed midway through February when the governors announced there would be no Stanley Cup winner in 2005. The same threat hangs over players and fans for the spring of 2013. The owners cannot agree on any meaningful scope of revenue sharing, so the financial windfall they desire – “just because” – will come from the players. If not, games will be canceled. Fans will scream bloody-murder and offer more baseless threats about “never returning to the game.” But, return they will – in droves – as soon as the players grow antsy enough to say “Uncle!”.
In that regard, the current stalemate is much-less a negotiation than a command. To avoid the Sep. 15 deadline for a lockout (or a work-stoppage of any length), the players will have to agree – virtually point-by-point – to the excruciating list of requirements put forth by ownership in mid-July. There isn’t a prayer that will happen on Donald Fehr’s watch; any-such concession would obliterate the NHLPA, though it isn’t remotely clear how the players can force encumbrance.
Fehr has surely convinced them to hold tight for a few months – thus the brevity of meetings here in town this week. The owners are certain they’ll triumph in a protracted stare-down, as they did eight years ago. Player solidarity, therefore, will be nothing more than a time-consuming charade.
DONALD FEHR BRINGS HONOR AND CREDIBILITY TO THE NHLPA. HIS CONSTITUENTS WILL DETERMINE THE FATE OF HOCKEY FOR THE COMING SEASON.
Bettman, of course, will take the bullet once again, while laughing all the way to the bank. Fans will claim that he’s “ruined the sport” by phenomenally advocating on behalf of the owners; we should all “fail” so thoroughly at our jobs. That’s why anathema toward the NHL commissioner is forever puzzling. All Bettman does – though with hardly any political acumen – is carry out the commands of ownership. This involves labor intervention and extends to franchise placement and re-location.
Gary Bettman didn’t take the Nordiques out of Quebec; the Jets out of Winnipeg or the Whalers out of Hartford in the 1990s. A majority of those that employed the commissioner signed off on the moves to Denver, Phoenix and Raleigh; a minimum three-quarters vote was required for expansion to Nashville, Atlanta, Columbus and Minnesota. As part of his job-description, Bettman did the explaining. Angry fans, unwilling to acknowledge the process, refused to look beyond the messenger. The same prevailed upon cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL schedule; it will flourish again once Bettman details ownership strategy for the 2012 lockout.
As such, dismay will burden only those that give in to emotion and choose to ignore the simplicity of the NHL’s labor mechanism.
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