NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly has been outspoken on a number of issues impacting the league. (Photo by Mark Wilson)
The current World Baseball Classic hasn’t quite lived up to expectations, in no small part due to a lack of buy-in from the Major League Baseball Players’ Association that’s led to a notable absence of top stars in the tournament. The MLBPA also hasn’t improved their reticence to be anything more than an obstacle reducing baseball’s ability to end the use of performance-enhancing drugs among its players.
Contrast that union and that sport with the positive news regularly emanating from the NHL Players’ Association; in this, the sophomore year of executive director Paul Kelly’s reign, the NHLPA couldn’t be more vocal about their willingness to (a) participate in each and every future Winter Olympics Games; and (b) take steps to protect the health and safety of its membership with suggested initiatives for the NHL to implement.
Now, you can take issue with the NHLPA’s rate of progress and their degree of improved reasoning, but you can’t deny the union already is light years ahead of where it was under previous administrations.
Meanwhile, the NHL itself continues down its usual path of denial and diversion.
All you have to do to capture the difference between the two groups is look at the stewardship of their leaders.
Ask Kelly about the troubling economic forecast bound to affect all businesses and as part of his response, he’ll offer frank appraisals of the league’s potential trouble spots in non-traditional hockey locales.
Ask Gary Bettman to speak on the same topic and he’ll request that you gaze at the issue through his custom-crafted kaleidoscope goggles before explaining why all good things don’t ever have to end and why his league’s greatest days are going to commence any second now.
Ask Kelly about potential expansion or relocation back to Canada and he’ll tell you the league ought to be seriously exploring any market that almost assuredly won’t be on the handout end of the NHL’s revenue-sharing program.
Ask Bettman about that issue and he’ll politely reply with the stock “the league isn’t considering any movement of teams at this point in time” reply, even when the financial bottom lines of one-third of the league would embarrass any respected operation.
All in all, the disparity in credibility between the league and its players has never been greater. And it makes me wonder how the public will receive each group the next time there’s a labor war that affects not just the NHL and NHLPA, but a vast assortment of the game’s appendage industries and their employees.
Last time that happened, most people – including me – were resolute supporters of Bettman and the owners, if only because of the perceived parity a salary cap system would create. (If you need to see what happens when a league puts little-to-no restraint on big-market ownership, baseball also provides a marvelous cautionary tale in that regard.)
But the next time that happens, will anyone honestly be able to defend the likes of Jeremy Jacobs (a.k.a. the NHL’s version of Dick Cheney) – the guy who, as chairman of the NHL’s board of governors, enjoys not only urging other teams to raise their ticket prices, but also moaning about the current collective bargaining agreement as “expensive” and “hard to live with.”
It’s a wonder Jacobs can keep a straight face while complaining. The league basically broke the NHLPA in 2004, forced a financial system down the players’ throats that guarantees the owners 43 percent of league revenues and a virtual assurance payroll costs won’t spiral out of control – and still Jacobs isn’t happy? And somehow, he’s the one who’s in the fans’ corner?
Give me 57 percent of a break.
Many of my colleagues believe the public will forever take the owners’ side in labor matters – the reasoning being that the average fan will always chide players for not playing “for free” as they would – but I’m not so sure anymore.
I think if Bettman and Jacobs come out a few years from now with a Hallmark-worthy tale of woe and sadness and 18 different types of Levitt Reports to try and justify shutting down the game for another year, they’ll be in for a far more unpleasant reception from hockey fans than they received five years ago.
If the league insists on once again making players and fans suffer for owners’ inability to govern themselves accordingly, I’m betting their sad attempt at shell-game chicanery will be exposed much sooner than it was before.
To paraphrase a much simpler man than I: Fool us once, shame on you. But we won’t be fooled again.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.