NHL lockout a stalemate seven years in the making
Bruce Arthur | Sep 14, 2012 6:20 PM ET
More from Bruce Arthur | @bruce_arthur
On Thursday night of Fashion Week in New York, a model was exiting a taxi in the middle of 45th Street at her own languid pace, her long photogenic leg extending from the cab. The cars trapped behind her began to honk, but the model took her time, stood up, collected her bag, struck a statuesque pose, and flipped the bird to the people who were waiting. Only then did she let the traffic go.
Earlier that day in New York, a different sort of progress was stopped in a different sort of way, but the message to onlookers wasn’t so different. The National Hockey League will lock its players out on Saturday night, and the date will pass quietly, and it will be the official beginning of what could be a prolonged work stoppage. Until hockey gets what it wants — in this case, a working collective bargaining agreement — everybody can just sit and wait.
“Hockey is poised, I think, to really move over the next three or four years to a fundamentally different place than it’s been before,” NHLPA executive director Don Fehr said Thursday. “The question is whether the dispute we’re currently having is going to screw that up. If so, that’s bad and that’s unfortunate — we ought to be doing what we can to avoid it.”
As Fehr has always said, Sept. 15 is not a magical date, since regular-season games, and accompanying pay cheques and significant revenues, are not scheduled to begin until Oct. 11. But this started seven years ago when the NHL signed a deal and believed it was a victory, and then slowly figured out that with agents taking their pliers to it, and given the asymmetrical financial condition of the league, it was not. As NHL commissioner Gary Bettman put it Thursday, “We have discovered there are things in this system over the last seven years that haven’t worked as well as anticipated.”
“We believe with the adjustments the league as a whole, our clubs will be healthy and stable and over time the players will be able to continue to grow their salaries in a fair way,” Bettman continued. “There’s so much revisionist history about what happened eight years ago … that somehow the players got slammed in the negotiations last time. They didn’t. We made what we thought was a fair deal. It actually turned out to be more fair than perhaps it should have been.”
Too fair by half, or at least by a quarter, if you take the league’s first offer to the players as a guide. The NHL is essentially pushing this hard because its lawyers did a lamentable job of forecasting the weather back in 2005, and also because this tactic will work. The players are pushing back this hard because they were pushed so damned effectively back in 2005, and because they don’t see another option.
“I don’t think you’re going to get a lot of traction trying to scrap with this group,” Boston defenceman Andrew Ference said, “because this group is unified and strong, with a fresh memory of what happens with those fights.”
It’s a strange argument, in a way — because the union lost the fight last time, they are more likely to win the fight this time, facing the same opponent with the same structural advantages, only because they know what will happen if they lose. But the inclination to fight is natural, whatever the argument. Everybody knows that.
And both sides should know better, and in fact, do know better. Both sides are led by very smart men, whose every move is calculated. Which means the lockout is calculated, because both sides know that pressure is required to make a deal. The lockout isn’t an unavoidable calamity; it’s a tool.
The NHL had to know that after the last lockout — you know, the one that cancelled the entire 2004-05 season, which was the only time any North American pro league had done so — the players would be angered by an opening proposal that gouged at their contracts and limited their contractual rights regarding the mechanisms that can drive those contracts up. The players, in turn, had to have known the league was looking for salary reductions, if only because the NFL and the NBA already ran this playbook, and the playbook worked.
And that’s why instead of truly substantive negotiating — instead of making offers that take into account their opponents’ positions, and trying to meet somewhere closer to the middle of this big financial soup — the two sides haven’t come close to singing similar songs. They have not been exchanging meaningful proposals; they have been exchanging competing philosophies, disguised as math. They all knew this was coming, but committed to the dance anyway.
So instead of phasing in rollbacks slowly and installing a more robust revenue-sharing system, the league went for the throat, knowing a throttling would take time. And instead of proposing a rollback of their own — which, for the record, players did at this time of year eight years ago, offering to take a 5% pay cut, which turned into 24% in the final union proposal — the NHLPA asked for smaller raises, which it knew would stall the process. As this happened, CapGeek.com pointed out that teams committed US$339.9-million in contracts in the month leading up to the lockout, topped off on Friday by the league-owned Coyotes committing US$21-million to a 36-year-old Shane Doan. And nobody got anywhere but here.
This is all vapour, and the past is prelude, and we will go round and round until these two sides begin to get serious and try to work with each other, whenever the hell that will be. The players will keep saying league revenues have grown an average of 7.1% for every year of the current agreement, and the league will keep saying that growth was fuelled by the Canadian dollar, Atlanta-to-Winnipeg, the new US$200-million per year TV deal with NBC. The players will keep saying they had to give up too much in the last agreement, and the league will keep saying they need to give up more in this agreement. The players will keep saying there is nothing in this for them, and the league will keep saying sure there is. You get to play hockey again.
And eventually, the players will agree. Until then, hockey stands in the middle of the road, not moving for the cars, hoisting middle fingers to one another, and to the world