It is beginning to appear more and more likely by the day that the National Hockey League will not be starting on time this season, at least in terms of training camps. When the calendar turns to September and the kids are head back to school, its typically time to begin thinking about NHL training camps and all of the related buildup towards preseason games and the crescendo of Opening Night in October. It’s an annual tradition every hockey fan tends to experience each fall.
Sadly, this September, the hockey talk has been mostly limited to the likely lockout we are headed for about at the end of this week. Fans never really want nor should have to worry about labor disputes within the very sport their disposable incomes and fandom help fund. After all, the old adage of millionaires versus billionaires fighting over their share of billions of dollars of revenue doesn’t carry a lot of weight or garner a whole lot of sympathy with the average hockey fan, and nor should it. Let’s not overlook the fact the world economy hasn’t exactly been flying high the last few years.
If you think you’ve seen this script play out before, you would be correct. Flash back to 1994 and the NHL was on the verge of exploding into the mainstream of the sports landscape. The New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils had played one of the most exciting conference finals the league had ever seen, with the Rangers prevailing in a double overtime of Game 7, only to be followed by a seven game Stanley Cup championship win over the Vancouver Canucks. While it wasn’t fun to see for this New Jersey Devil fan, it was good for the growth of the sport, and it appeared hockey might finally gain traction and gain fans across the board in the United States. How did Commissioner Gary Bettman and his band of owners follow up the potential springboard of 1994? A lockout, postponing the season until January, and crippling any momentum generated from the year before.
Fast forward to 2004, when the Tampa Bay Lightning won their first Stanley Cup, playing to packed houses in the postseason in Florida, a warm climate many thought would never embrace an ice hockey team. Others like Carolina, Dallas and Anaheim were also top contenders then. Not only did Bettman and the team owners shoot themselves in the foot by locking out the players, they proceeded to lose the entire 2004-05 season as a result of it, and the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded for 2005, a definite black eye for a sport that really couldn’t afford a lost season.
The league cried poverty and the need for “cost certainty.”. After losing an entire season, the NHLPA all but caved in, accepting a 24% rollback to its salaries, and tied the salary cap to a percentage of hockey related revenue. After all, playing at a reduced salary is better than not playing at all, right? So, it seemed things were in a much better place, and it seems as if hockey revenue has exploded the last few years, thanks in part to a large television contract from Comcast/NBC, as well as high ticket sales and merchandise sales from its dedicated fan base. So, the cost certainty the league practically pleaded for seven years ago is now causing the owners to once again demand givebacks from the players once again.
Gary Bettman has been forced to fall on the NHL’s sword for his owners that pay him an $8 million salary to basically be the “bad guy” for public perception. Sure, he’s offered to decline his salary if there is a lockout, but let’s face it, that’s little more than a PR move. The fans can hate Gary Bettman all they want, but in the end, let’s keep thing in perspective. He works for the ownership group, and does what they want him to do. It’s not like Gary Bettman is unilaterally creating this lockout, it’s come down from his bosses, both the Board of Governors and the ownership group as a whole.
The real conflict seems to be within the ownership group, more specifically, the haves and the have nots. In some cases, the big market teams like Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, NY Rangers, Toronto, Vancouver and others are thriving, but do not want to share revenues with the teams that aren’t doing as well financially, whether its Florida, Nashville, NY Islanders, etc. Make no mistakes, it’s all about G-R-E-E-D. If you look at the other professional sports, the National Football League model seems to be the most just and fair, allowing all 32 teams to thrive and succeed by sharing revenues more so than other sports. Yes, some team make more than others thanks to stadium ownership and/or local sponsorship deals, but the disparity is not as great as it is in the NHL.
So, rather than share record setting revenues across the board with some of the teams that need it, the owners are going back to the players to essentially try and take away salaries from the player base. Let’s remember, no player has a salary that wasn’t offered to them by an owner. I’m not typically a pro-union guy for the most part (not trying to turn this into a political discussion), but this seems to be such a no-brainier, it’s painfully obvious at least to me. When you look at everything collectively, its hard not to feel for us die hard hockey fans. Sure, we could say we will try to spend our entertainment dollars elsewhere, but there lies the biggest problem, because as much as I would like to say I will not come back to spend my money on hockey, I’m smart enough to realize it isn’t going to happen, I’d be punishing myself if I stopped watching. So, the league and players basically has us die hard fans by the horns and will be the people who clearly suffer the most from any labor disputes.
Should the NHL care about its fans and do right by them? Yes, of course they should. After all, the fans are the paying customer. There will be a lot of lip service once the new labor peace is achieved, but I don’t expect anything beyond words, and it will be a last cruel reminder of the NHL pecking order. The owners make the money, share a large chunk with the players, but it’s all squeezed out of the pockets of the fans who support their teams.
There is no possible chance the fan base will grow from the result of a lockout. The National Hockey League must be smart enough to realize this. It’s the only real saving grace one might have in regards to the possibility of there not being a significant work stoppage. It’s easy to talk tough before you get to a real deadline and unfortunately, in most situations of this type, the real meaningful and meaty discussions don’t take place until the last minute.
However, when you see events being cancelled/postponed, such as the annual New Jersey Devils alumni charity golf outing, it makes you wonder if the owners do get it. There’s been plenty of talk about the fans trying to “rally” around the issues to remind the league of where it’s money comes from, but I wonder as to how successful it might be or what impact it could have. Let’s hope the owners and NHLPA can come to a resolution in the very near future so we as fans can talk about what really matters, and that’s what takes place on the ice.
About the Author: Father, Husband, Fantasy Sports junkie, Section 3 season ticket holder - NJ Devils, New Jersey Devils Writer - HockeyIndependent.com