Why NHL Owners Outlast Players/Fans

By HOWARD BERGER

LOS ANGELES (Aug. 18) – I was intrigued to notice the bulletin on Friday night coming out of Rosemont, Ill. that National Hockey League players – according to their leader, Donald Fehr – are “unified in the face of an owners’ lockout.”

Now, where have we heard that before?

Without even checking, I’m fairly certain it was eight years ago right about now, when former NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow spoke on behalf of his electorate. The consensus today seems to be that Fehr is educating the 2012 contingent better than Goodenow did in 2004, but I’m not buying it. Anyone that followed the events leading up to the lost campaign of 2004-05 knows that Goodenow warned players they’d likely need to sacrifice a season-and-a-half in order to conquer the owners – many of whom, it turned out, would have been better off keeping their doors locked forever. Those players were also brave, resilient and “unified”… until an entire season of their generally brief careers (and corresponding paychecks) had been pissed away.

Then they crumbled – like pie-crust.

Why should any of us believe it will be different this time around? The NHL is messed up because the rule of “cost-certainty” that Gary Bettman and the owners insisted upon in 2004 turned into a bad joke. The gulf between traditional and non-traditional markets today is wider than it’s ever been – to the extent the rich boys have no desire to bail out their feeble partners. All that’s left is to grab a further share of the economic pie from the players: an ignoble, yet fool-proof arrangement. If the players aren’t compliant – and no matter how justifiable their stance – they will sit idly until coerced into submission. The cycle will then renew itself until the owners conclude, yet again, they cannot be saved from one another.

Welcome back, fans, to the harsh reality of big business. So long as you remain beholden to those that regulate hockey in North America (and why should you be held accountable for simply loving the game?), this pattern of labor-disruption will continue. As always in such an environment, the freight-payer is thoroughly neglected: governors of the NHL knowing, through experience, that fans will miss the game and hurry back once it resumes. If said owners, therefore, cannot line their pockets through conventional means, they’ll hang the “No Admittance” sign until players become fed up with inactivity. White flags will fly and hockey will persevere until the next financial crisis. Then the owners will rinse, and repeat.

Logically, this procures a feeling among loyal fans – coughing up a monstrous, ever-increasing sum for game-tickets and team paraphernalia – to wish the entire clutch of millionaires, on both sides, a one-way trip to hell. Impassioned threats, however, have long proven meaningless. Consequently, if player submission requires the annulment of one season or two (as Goodenow cautioned eight years ago), so be it. Barred arena doors in the midst of economic warfare do not phase the Bettman regime.

Jim Devellano, among the NHL’s most senior executives, put it bluntly in a Facebook message to yours truly on Thursday night. I had asked Twitter followers and Facebook friends whether the downtrodden Maple Leafs would benefit from a shortened season of, say, 60 games. Ignoring the question altogether, Jimmy D chimed in with “Very easy to cancel [entire season]; very easy, believe me!” It was compelling perspective from a long-time insider, but hardly a bulletin.

Amid this cat-fight between people that earn more dollars in one week than most of us will derive in a calendar year, it is natural to feel put-off. Ultimately, however, there are no good guys or bad guys; as a mere fan of the sport, you are unavoidably trapped in the cross-fire of management/union combat. That this particular scuffle involves paid entertainment rather than essential service, the option is there for the consumer to live it, or leave it. Without exception, and governed by hindsight,  the NHL owners have all their capital riding on Door No. 1.

UNLESS THE PLAYERS CAPITULATE, DUSTIN PENNER AND THE LOS ANGELES KINGS WILL BE STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS BEYOND THE SPRING OF 2013. ELIOT J. SCHECHTER GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM

The players in this charade are neither weak nor misguided. They simply lack empowerment. From the earliest age, they dream about starring in hockey’s biggest theater. Through formative years, they devote endless hours to honing their craft. The percentage of those that graduate to the NHL is minuscule beyond calculation. Once there, the likelihood of subsisting beyond five years is identically remote. Moreover, a player’s body-clock and routine becomes entrenched. Even those fortunate to win the Stanley Cup enjoy three ensuing months of inactivity. The 14 teams of playoff spectators are granted a five-month vacation. By mid-September, every living cell is geared toward the pursuit of competition. Paid salary resumes in early-October.

Though players with girlfriends, wives and families enjoy time spent together, nerves become frayed upon the disruption of routine. Hanging around home through the winter months is abundantly foreign – more-so in the absence of remuneration. The owners smugly recognize that time marches on, and disunity prevails.

So, try to avoid being duped by the Sep. 15 “deadline.” As in 2004, sincere negotiation will not begin until players feel the pinch – likely sometime in early-December. The Bridgestone Winter Classic may represent a line-in-the-sand for owners, though the players had better be on their knees well beforehand. Otherwise – and as Jim Devellano blatantly implied – there will not be a Stanley Cup champion in 2013.

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