Are Gary Bettman and the owners starting to bend a little in their demands? (Getty Images)
As we heard increasing rumblings that the end of the NHL lockout was nigh, we also heard a sentiment that marked the end of the 2004-05 labor war and lost season:
“I just hope both sides get it right this time and we don’t have to go through this nonsense again the next time they need a new collective bargaining agreement.”
That’s a very understandable thought, but given the history of tumult and animus between NHL team owners and players, it couldn’t be more naïve. If the past three CBA negotiating sessions have taught us anything, it’s that NHL fans always will have to endure this ugly game of brinkmanship and propaganda pushing whenever a new labor deal needs finalizing. Lockouts have become a hallmark of the Gary Bettman Era and there’s nothing, even now, that suggests it will be any different five or eight or 10 years from now.
The way events have turned out this week – with the league suddenly relenting on the hardline stance owners have clung to from the beginning – those who believed all along the NHL never intended to play games in October and November and always intended to push the NHLPA as far as possible before salvaging a season are looking quite savvy.
If owners really wanted a full 82-game campaign, they easily could have taken a softer tact with the union and have arrived at this moment back in September. That they chose not to and instead took the scorched-earth approach perfectly illustrates their big-picture blueprint, arranged and carefully cultivated by the law firm of Proskauer Rose across a number of professional sports leagues.
No wonder the NHLPA’s strategy (at least, up until this week) has been to play the slippery fish, catchable for a brief moment, but never long enough to admire or even get a solid read on. If the league was going to be so openly aggressive toward players, they were under no obligation to play the game under the NHL’s assumed rules. That’s why weeks passed without any meaningful contact and why Bettman made ridiculous propositions such as a two-week moratorium on negotiations. Players quickly recognized there was never any impetus to reach a quick conclusion from the other side and responded similarly.
Unfortunately for hockey fans, the NHL is still in the same developmental stage as Major League Baseball was with its players union a couple decades ago. As NHLPA second-in-command Steve Fehr explained recently on The Hockey News Radio Show, baseball owners had to learn the hard way it made more sense to deal with its talent the soft way than the hard way.
“In baseball, Don and I went through a lot of stuff over a lot of years with (MLB commissioner) Bud Selig and (MLB executive vice-president) Rob Manfred,” Fehr said Nov. 23, “but eventually, out of that came trust and understanding, and baseball now, by the end of this current CBA, baseball will be working on 21 years of uninterrupted labor peace without a game lost. It would be nice to start to build a foundation so you could see how hockey could get to a similar place. Doesn’t look like we’re there today.”
It didn’t look like that two weeks ago, and it still doesn’t today. But say that out loud: Twenty-one years of uninterrupted labor peace. Sounds like heaven to an NHL fan, doesn’t it? Sadly, as Thursday’s CBA negotiations began giving off that old-car-that-somebody-has-lived-in-smell and rumors of fresh rancor between the sides re-emerged, it is clear that is a pipe dream Cheech & Chong would want a piece of.
No, the reality is we’re still no better off in the trust department than we were in 2005. Regardless of when a deal is signed, there will be hard feelings lingering in the air for some time to come.
Just before Steve Fehr talked on THN Radio about Selig and Manfred and the lessons baseball learned that the NHL stubbornly refuses to, he paraphrased the famous American labor figure John L. Lewis by saying, “labor relations is like domestic relations, except there’s no divorce.” But I found a Lewis quote that is a better analogy for the current NHL boondoggle and the reason we’re likely to go through another agonizing lockout whenever a new CBA expires:
“Who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?” Lewis asked in Life Magazine in 1954.
With apologies to Red Wings executive Jimmy Devellano, that is the appropriate animal/human analogy between NHL player and owner. The bird is Hockey Related Revenue, the players the dog and the owners the hunter. And the problem is, rather than taking a genteel, rewarding approach with their supposed best friend, the owners have used the cold riding crop and want the bulk of the bird for themselves.
Which makes it all the more baffling when owners are baffled as to why that dog won’t hunt anymore.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.