Scott Gomez shakes Kimmo Timonen's hand after being bounced in the Eastern Conference final. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
Wasn’t it touching and inspirational to see NFL Players “stand as one” this past weekend with their single-finger salute prior to the first games of the season? If NHL players decide to do the same thing a year from now, please consider yourself permitted to hurl at them whatever is in your hand at the time, including blunt objects.
Over the next little while, you can expect to read as much about labor issues in sports as you will touchdown passes, slam dunks and highlight-reel goals. If I know the mentality of hockey players the way I think I do, thankfully the grand gestures and proclamations will be limited to guys in suits and there will be none on the playing surface the way there were in a number of NFL games this past weekend.
As we continue down this road to either a new collective agreement or another labor disruption, you can bet there will be a number of times the players will want to give the owners a one-finger salute of their own, but they won’t do it in front of the fans. That’s just the way they are.
Look, we realize being a professional athlete is one big kumbaya festival when it comes to labor negotiations. We get that. But by doing what NFL players did, they drag their most precious commodity – the fans – into the mess and they try to seriously stretch the limits of their intelligence.
How are fans expected to see players do whatever it takes to defeat their opponent when they see those kinds of shenanigans moments before kickoff? But hockey players have proved time and again they can separate on- and off-ice worlds. If anything, hockey players have been accused for years of not having enough respect for one another.
It was under that backdrop we learned this past weekend the NHL Players’ Association executive committee had unanimously endorsed the hiring of Donald Fehr as its executive director. The matter will now go to a league-wide vote that is expected to be a rubber stamp procedure, so it appears the NHLPA now has as its top dog the most respected and astute sports labor leader in history.
This corner still has problems with the way in which much of it unfolded, namely that Fehr was the one who essentially rewrote the NHLPA constitution that gives the executive director much more power, but having someone as canny as Fehr on board might just scare the NHL into not trying to beat the players down in 2012.
In fact, Fehr’s presence will be felt as much in how he rebuilds and restaffs a dysfunctional organization as it will for how things go down in two years. Fehr was hired to give the players a legitimate, rational voice in collective bargaining, albeit one that doesn’t appear intimidated by or beholden to a league that seems intent on flexing its muscles at every opportunity. (In fact, the league is doing the same thing right now with its on-ice officials. As THN.com first reported last week, the NHL has approached a number of minor league referees and linesmen to consider being scab officials if the league can’t come to an agreement with the NHL Officials’ Association.)
Fehr, of course, said all the right things during a media conference Saturday afternoon, including the fact that a player strike would be a “last resort.” Nice of him to say, but the reality is the players will have absolutely no say in whether or not there is a labor disruption two years down the road. Whether or not we miss some or all of the 2012-13 season will depend solely on whether or not the owners will want to change the economic landscape badly enough to shut the game down again. And who knows, judging by the way they’re dealing with the officials, perhaps we’ll all be watching scab players that season.
Now, if the NHLPA had really wanted to force the issue, it would have refused to extend the CBA another season when it had the chance. That way, its deal would have come to a conclusion at the same time as the NFL’s and National Basketball Association’s and the NHLPA might have given itself a lot more leverage. You’d have to imagine sports television executives would get an enormous case of the yips at the prospect of not having any football, basketball or hockey to fill the airwaves.
But the NHLPA decided not to do that. Maybe it took one for the team, maybe it didn’t. But we do know the players want to avoid a labor disruption in the worst way, which is why we probably won’t see any silly one-finger salutes from them next season.
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