NHL Lockout 3D: The Blame Game
Okay I’m back from a summer of travel and boating to bring my deflating and borderline jaded views on all things NHL to you via this blog. And really what else could I really get into today besides the lockout?
We’ve heard the threats from both sides. “The NHL has cancelled the first week of preseason games” “Players are united this time, we won’t break” “The Winter Classic will be chopped if no agreement is reached by November”.
Not again! How can this be happening? We just did this didn’t we? Well I suppose 2004-05 was quite sometime ago when you really stop and think about it. And as I argued in a past post, Bettman emerged from that mess as perhaps the strongest commissioner of all 4 major pro sports in America.
But as the start of the season, or what should be the start of the regular season draws near, we’ve seen the Fire Bettman hashtags, t-shirts, and verbiage be mass re-produced all over the interweb.
Here’s a few reasons why you cannot just blindly blame Gary Bettman for a potential lockout:
1. Player Pride There’s no two ways around it. Last time around the players, some of the toughest men on the planet, had their pants pulled down and got spanked. In a big way. The deal they ended up taking was worse than the original offer on the table. Quite frankly, they dropped the mitts with the wrong foe, and in the end, the owners broke the union, got everything they wanted and then some. The NHLPA wound up firing two executive directors in the fallout.
So let’s consider the NHLPA now. This collection of men is a group not used to losing. They are a select group of society who had a dream, and are realizing it everyday. That’s a powerful concept, something that I’ve personally had a chance to interact with. I can share with you that due to that mentality, many of these players are naturally very optimistic and motivated by nature. They do not simply take no for an answer, and sometimes to their own detriment.
It is hard to imagine the players folding their hand until necessary. And that’s not Bettman’s fault. Regardless of who brought us to the current situation, the fact of the matter is that the league needs tweaks. Not an overhaul like the past lockout, but tweaks. And it certainly is not Gary Bettman’s fault that the player’s pride is standing in their way of conceding that.
2. Gary Bettman is essentially a puppet I don’t mean to take anything away from him. He’s done wonders for the league. As I mentioned in an earlier post, league revenue is up 750% since he took the reigns. Now I work in finance, and understand inflation, but that certainly is growth. The league is healthy. The rule changes have improved the game more than I could ever expect. And the game has set attendance and TV records throughout the last decade.
Now, you can argue that the league has succeeded in-spite of GB (you’d be wrong), or second guess the commish all you want, but from the paragraph above, even the most radical of Fire Bettman supporters would have to admit he’s done an adequate job at the helm.
His biggest stain on the resume. Trilogy of lockouts!! Well let’s remember Gary’s job is to serve the owners. And if the owners want more than 43% of the revenue (which currently is lower than NBA and NFL owner cuts) then he does not have much choice but to carry out his employers wishes. In reality, those 30 owners don’t force his hand, they deal, organize and play his cards for him.
3. Serving Privileged Hypocrites Which segues nicely to the final point. GB has a tough job. He’s serving an ownership group that does not follow its own potential rules. As Greg Wyshynski argued on Puck Daddy, the league owners spent $200 million on contacts in the two days before the lockout. How could a group arguing for max deals and salary reductions do such a thing?
The answer is pretty simple. The NHL owners are the cool girls at the party. And Gary is doing everything he can to keep them happy. While the league has taken steps forward in the past decade it is still, and forgive a terrible pun, on thin ice. In the NFL, Roger Goodell lay fines, suspend coaches for seasons or trot out referees from his neighbors flag football league. Why? Because if those 32 owners don’t like it, there’s 100 of others lining up to join on the money grab.
The NHL has no such luxury. Sure, the owners in key markets are almost universally guaranteed profits. But ask yourself this, would the Red Wings sell out if the Wings were a perennial loser like the 90s Lions. You can call this place Hockeytown all you want, but the answer is no. And that is the difference between the leagues. The Lions could trot out a JV team, go 0-16 and still turn a profit (oh wait, they did that!).
So in conclusion, you see it is not the easiest job for Mr. Bettman. While he’s certainly made some mistakes along the way, there’s no way he deserves the blame for the upcoming labor strike in the NHL. He’s caught in the middle of some prideful players and some entitled ownership. And what’s more, his hands are pretty tied.
So if you’re looking for someone to blame this extended offseason, take a look at the two sides pulling on either side of this tug of war. To me, an elementary approach of 50/50 would seem like a pretty fair middle ground. But given the attitude of the parties involved, we may be waiting awhile to get there.