The Stewards Struggle, The Game Suffers

Fans of hockey talk reverently about “the game”. The game is its history, the storied venues, and the players past and present that display their athleticism and skill on the ice. It is a father that instills the love of the home team to his child. The game is a team that unites a city behind their quest for a Cup.

The game ignites passions rarely seen in sports. It takes participants and fans to the pinnacle of joy and the depths of heartbreak.

To say the game is special is an understatement.

It is sacred.

For the game to grow and to thrive, it needs good stewardship. That is leadership that looks to the good of the game as a whole, not just a particular team. It is visionary, examining where the game is today and optimizing the potential to make it better, both on and off the ice.

The stewards of the game are the owners and the players. The financial wherewithal of the owner is the foundation of the individual franchise, and their investment makes the game possible in their market. The players and their effort on the ice are the draw, the attraction for the fan.

Ask the 30 owners (or ownership groups) and the players what their vision is for the game. What do you think would be the response from most? I think most would say something like maximizing profitability for their team or making the most money during their playing days.

And therein lies a fundamental problem with the the NHL and the game.

It is the “I have to get mine” mentality.

For the NHL to be successful, all its teams have to be financially viable and on sound footing. Yes, there are differences in markets due to size and other entertainment options. There are differences with respect to the longevity of the sport. Revenues in Toronto, for example, will be different than they are in most markets.

But if Toronto is only worried about the financial health of their team and not the rest of the markets, the League and the game suffers.

There is nothing wrong with the profit motive, but if owners view profitability primarily through the lens of their team, then the game is in trouble.

This singular focus on their team has led to the owners operating in the vacuum of their own self interest and sets up the conflict with the players that the League and its fans endures on an all too frequent basis.

And the players are as guilty as the owners with the “I have to get mine” line of thought.

Unlike players in the other professional leagues, NHL players have other options if they are locked out in a labor dispute with the owners. We saw many players leave for teams in Europe and Russia in the last lockout, and we are seeing it again in this labor dispute. Because there are other options for playing and drawing a paycheck, one has to wonder if there is the sense of urgency on the part of the players to resolve this dispute.

Players have limited time to maximize their income from their playing days, and it is understandable that they want as much money from the owners as possible.

There is no problem with that thinking, but when it becomes centered solely on what is good for the players, the confrontation with the owners becomes inevitable.

And the game suffers.

The problem that the NHL faces is that the stewards of the game are fighting over who gets the most of the revenue pie rather than growing revenue as much as possible. The thinking is about what is good for me rather than what is good for the game.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has said that even if there is a lockout, the fans will come back. That may be true, but that comment alone is indicative of the the narrow thinking that has lead to a lockout to begin with. Where other sports leagues worry about the impact of a labor dispute on the fans, the NHL treats them as an afterthought.

Hardly what I would call visionary thinking.

There is no doubt that there are serious issues to be resolved in this CBA negotiation. Revenue sharing, length of contracts, and defining hockey related revenues are just some of the significant items to be negotiated.

But with both sides intractably dug in, defending their position, resolution seems a long way off.

And the game suffers.

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About the Author: A native Nashvillian that grew up with minor league hockey, I'm now a devoted Predators fan and NHL follower. I have had the privilege of allowing my children to grow up watching the Predators and seeing the joy on their face when they are at a game. By day, I am a partner in an independent investment management company in the Nashville area. I played collegiate football and graduated from the University of South Carolina and graduated from the LSU graduate School of Banking. So yes, there are real true southern hockey fans in these non-traditional markets.

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