Zero Progress, but lots of Empty Rhetoric: Recapping the First Week of the NHL Lockout


A week ago I wrote about how the media have been on the fans’ side and are pretty cynical about the position of owners (certainly) and players (somewhat less). A public relations battle has emerged, but what is there for either side to gain, really? The owners would seem to care about what the fans think, but they also know they hold almost all the chips. They have the money to pay the players and they control the venues for where the fans get to watch the games and spend their money. 

The narrative a week ago was focused on fans getting screwed; this week that thread remained, to a degree, but questions about how the players are going to hold up in the coming weeks and months became a more dominant story – even though the players have yet to miss the first cheque as a result of the lockout.

In a week where little movement appeared in either side’s position, there was still plenty written. Let’s have a look.

On Friday, the Province’s Tony Gallagher wrote that at least the Canucks don’t yet have to worry about their stars going overseas – unlike Ted Leonsis and wayward son Alex Ovechkin:

This is almost certainly hot air from Ovechkin, who is almost certainly frustrated with the lack of progress in the proceedings between the NHL and it’s players, because he can’t play in the Olympics if he should bolt on his NHL contract. At the same time, Ovechkin is something of a loose cannon, which has to be unnerving for the Capitals’ owner. After all, Leonsis has built the team’s entire marketing scheme around this guy, who plays like a maniac most nights, and could well get hurt over there trying to impress the fans at home by showing them what he can do.

That’s one blessing the Vancouver Canucks have had so far, in that none of their significant players have decided to go to Europe yet, and they well know what can happen after Alex Burrows got hurt at the world championship last spring and lost part of his summer to the injury. And don’t forget the worlds, some five years ago, when Daniel Sedin mangled his back.

A day later, Tom Gulitti of The Record (New Jersey) wondered how long can lower-tier NHLPAers really stay away from playing, espeically if they aren’t going to Europe.

If another wave of players leaves for the money of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and other European leagues, that will make the financial hardship easier on some of the NHLPA membership – mostly the stars. Some of the other players – the third- and fourth-line grinders and fifth and sixth defensemen – won’t have that option, though, and they will be the ones who really have to absorb the burden of this lockout for the NHLPA.

It doesn’t seem totally illogical that lower-tier players and teams might be the one who are going to force a settlement.

Perhaps in reaction to worries like that, in Quebec, word emerged earlier this week of a ‘caravan’ league. CSN Philly’s Tim Panaccio picked up on it :

 A number of French-Canadian players are trying to organize games throughout Quebec with a team in Quebec City and another in Montreal – and perhaps more. 

Danny Briere (Gatineau, QC), who is interested in playing, said that teammates Max Talbot (LeMoyne, QC) and Bruno Gervais (Longueuil, QC) are trying to make it happen with the two cities playing a game a week and proceeds benefiting charities.

"Most of the guys will be from Quebec," Talbot told in an e-mail, "And we’ll play once or twice a week, depending upon the week. We’ll just try to stay in shape with a high level of competition but no contact."

Motivated a bit by cynicism, perhaps? The PR angle is nice, but will it really make a difference? These are, after all, millionaires and billionaires arguing about money. Fans may be siding more with the players, but that’s not going to settle the dispute, is it? We might find it reprehensible that Jim Devellano would compare players to cattle, but what difference does that make? 

"Each owner / team has a decision as to how they want to pay their players, as long as they are under the cap. Now Donald Fehr would have you believe by getting rid of the cap, the owners would make more money and that the sky is the limit, but trust me Scott, the owners would lose their asses. We’ve tried that. It doesn’t work. There is just too much cost involved in running and owning a team."

"It’s very complicated and way too much for the average Joe to understand, but having said that, I will tell you this: The owners can basically be viewed as the Ranch, and the players, and me included, are the cattle. The owners own the Ranch and allow the players to eat there. That’s the way its always been and that the way it will be forever. And the owners simply aren’t going to let a union push them around. It’s not going to happen."

The second paragraph is where the fireworks are. There’s been plenty of comment on it, so let’s not waste our time there. The first paragraph, however, may be just as sensational. Devellano has basically acknowledged that without rules on spending, owners can’t control themselves. We all know that, but for a manager to come out and say this has to be met with a raised eyebrow, no?

Anyway, the league fined Devellano for his comments. It was bad PR for them, and they had to make that clear. But, again, to what end? We know the owners are convinced that Canadian fans, their major sources of cash, will be back, so why worry about your image?

The players do seem to care about what fans think about them. Last weekend, the NHLPA sent out a video that was clearly trying to drape themselves in a ‘we just want to play’ light. They must have felt that they would at least be able to knock out the owners in the public image game. It is about all they have, I suppose, but no one thinks that minor victory will be particularly productive…

The Chicago Tribune’s David Martin put his imagination to use and pondered what kind of advice Don Fehr might have given the players to continue winning the PR game (if that even matters).

Organize some hockey games and offer free tickets to fans. These could be mini all-star games or intercity contests without the NHL names. For example, you could play western all-stars against eastern all-stars or Montreal vs. Boston. It might cost a few bucks to rent the odd arena, but I’m sure you guys can afford it.

Offer your services to local schools and minor hockey leagues. Nothing says you care about the fans like helping out a bunch of pre-pubescent hockey-playing kids. And don’t worry about the commitment. Given your fame, all you’ll have to do is stand around and sign autographs.

Whatever events you do come up with, always announce that the proceeds are going to charity. It makes you look like you really care. Fans don’t have to know that your favorite charity is the NHLPA.

In the end, the fans are held hostage. They want NHL hockey to be played. The players know this, the owners know this. But who controls the money? That’s what matters (and the question of how that money should be divided). So long as there’s no common ground on the question of dividing HRR then nothing will change. What remains is the question: "how long can the players tolerate the stand-off?"

On Friday, Jonathan Willis wrote at the Edmonton Journal’s Cult of Hockey that the players’ position isn’t just about the money, that a sense of fairness is also driving their negotiating position. There’s a serious psychological underpinning to this belief, he writes, and that despite all logic about lost wages and the like, the players are motivated by personal pride as much as anything:

When Gary Bettman argues that the players will be better off financially if they just start making concessions now and avoid missing any games, he isn’t wrong. Players have short careers. Losing even half a season represents a bigger drop in total career earnings than the concessions they’d make to the league. From a financial perspective, it strikes me as all but inarguable that the players’ best bet is to settle quickly.

But then, that’s not really the point. I think when the players, for the most part, look at how things have been handled they’re struck by the unfairness of the league’s position. Gary Bettman has been trumpeting the league’s record revenues ever since the last lockout. Now he’s demanding massive concessions. Owners have signed players to long-term deals – as recently as the day the collective bargaining agreement expired. Now they’re hoping to claw some of that money back, in their first offer through a rollback and in later offers through escrow. The league couldn’t exist without the players – what right do guys in suits have to demand concessions every time the CBA expires? 

As Jonathan points out, the league wouldn’t exist without the select talent the players provide. It’s a pretty weird situation to be in. The owners provide the capital, the players the service, so where are they going to meet? And how long will those players who really ‘just want to play’ be willing to wait?

  • Marda Miller

    I am completely on the side of the players in this one. It’s very difficult to take the owners seriously after a summer of ridiculously high contracts.

    I hope the NHLPA holds out as long as it takes in order for them to get a fair deal.

  • elvis15

    The owners have a point, but have painted themselves in such a poor light with ridiculous contracts and the concessions that were given by the players last time that they no longer have the option to take their ball (puck) and go home. They have to be seen as the side willing above all to negotiate if they want to win any favour with the fans, or else they’ll be seen (or perhaps continue to be seen) as just another corporate entity looking for tax breaks and a way to get cheaper labour. They lose if they become associated with the 1% they already are when the players as millionaires come off looking like kids just wanting to play hockey.

    I don’t side strongly with either group, but my opinion is this: the players are willing to be creative about finding a solution so the owners must be willing to hear them out and negotiate. They’ll always be seen as the bad guys by the majority this time around until they do.