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Difficult to side with owners in new labor war

Gary Bettman will lead the owners into another round of CBA talks with the NHLPA. (Getty Images)

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Gary Bettman will lead the owners into another round of CBA talks with the NHLPA. (Getty Images)

I’ve got bad news and I’ve got worse news: The bad news is NHL fans are now stuck in the sticky-haze days of summer, far from their natural habitat of ice-cold arenas and innards-soothing hot drinks. The worse news is those same fans are about to be barraged by a torrent of transparent propaganda as the league rolls closer to another labor war with its players.

Anyone who paid attention during the league’s last lockout – which robbed fans of the 2004-05 season and left an indelible black mark on the legacies of all involved – should know what’s coming. Owners will claim they’re unable to make a profit and demand major monetary concessions from the NHL Players’ Association (most notably in terms of reducing the amount of overall revenue players receive from the current 57 percent to 50 percent or lower); players, meanwhile, will do their best to hold hard to the previous collective bargaining agreement and ask for more say in big-picture operations (including rule changes, supplementary discipline and expansion/relocation).

But this time around, fans and the hockey media who are supposed to represent them have reason to be much more skeptical than they were nearly eight years ago. This time, there is no overriding principle worthy of shuttering the league’s doors for a full season.

This time, you believe what you hear at your own risk.

Personally, I’m not buying anything coming out of the league offices and their faithful water-carriers in the press. That’s not to say I’m locked arm-in-arm with the NHLPA; if you’ve read my work before, you understand I’ve criticized them for putting profit over player safety and on many other issues – including their aversion to the salary cap and preference for untenable disparities in roster quality.

However, I also recall all the snake oil the NHL massaged into our collective dermis during the ‘04-05 lockout. Remember the Levitt Report? Neither Shakespeare nor Mel Brooks has penned such a grand work of comedy. For what I think is the definitive debunking of the Levitt Report, look here – but make sure you’ve got a good hour to spare.

That said, the truth of the Levitt Report can be summarized this way: The NHL paid a former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission chairman to put out a disingenuous, sleight-of-hand version of the league’s finances and alleged it was losing nearly $300 million per season. It couldn’t go on, the owners cried, and most of the media and Average Joes agreed with them. The notion of player greed was sold extensively as the reason the NHL might have to relocate every Canadian team except bulletproof Toronto and why small-market teams couldn’t compete for talent with the Leafs, Rangers, Red Wings and Flyers. And most of the media and Average Joes agreed with them.

The players, burdened by a myopic NHLPA leadership under Bob Goodenow, never stood a chance. They were millionaires trying to stare down billionaires – billionaires who regarded their teams as their toys – and in defeat, they gave the NHL the two actual victories they were seeking: the PA fired Goodenow (loathed by the owners with the intensity of 100,000 John Tortorellas) and allowed the league to more or less write a new CBA itself.

Yet somehow, the utter thrashing the players took in that labor pact is about to be held up by the owners as another instance of the players manipulating the system to their advantage. Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz has come out recently and tried to get people to believe his franchise still wasn’t making a profit despite more than 200 consecutive sellouts of Chicago’s home dates. If this is some type of Sacha Baron Cohen satire of sports owners, then bravo, Mr. Wirtz.

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But how can that be? How can the players have lost a labor negotiation – as clearly acknowledged here by Lightning management member and former NHLer Dave Andreychuk – yet still hold the owners upside down by the ankles and shake them free of all their money?

Maybe it’s not that way at all. Could it be that it’s actually the owners and their GMs who take each CBA and exploit whatever loopholes (such as the front-end loading of contracts) they can find? Why do the players have to keep financing bad business decisions like the money pit in the Arizona desert when it’s Bettman and the owners who are responsible for that strategy? If the owners can’t control themselves, handing out contracts such as the first one Ilya Kovalchuk tried to sign with New Jersey, why should the players have to pay? If we want to talk about how many cars and mansions Sidney Crosby has, why aren’t we including Ted Leonsis’ personal lifestyle in the discussion?

These are the questions that should have been asked more often in 2004 and I take full responsibility for my role in the NHL’s disinformation campaign at that time. But you can learn your lesson and I believe I’ve learned mine, which is why I believe this next labor clash won’t be about making ticket prices affordable for working class families or giving a team like the New York Islanders a better chance at winning. It will be about the ultimate goal of the last lockout: increasing franchise values. A recent Forbes NHL franchise value report pegged the average NHL team’s worth at an all-time high of $240 million, or 47 percent more than it was before the lockout. Another mission? Tightening the noose on athletes with a very limited earning window.

Most of all, I believe the idea you’re going to hear quite a bit in the months to come – namely, that if there’s another work stoppage, the NHL’s owners and players are equally greedy and as much at fault – is nothing short of false equivalence bunk. Sometimes, one side is setting a new standard for avarice. And I think we’re approaching those times.

Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His Power Rankings appear Mondays, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.

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