NHL Lockout: An Open Letter to Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr

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NHL Lockout: An Open Letter to Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Here we are, mid-September, and for the second time in eight years, hockey fans are facing a lockout.

We remember the last time we went down this road and we can easily recall the consequences. It cost NHL fans the entire 2004-05 season. There was no hockey season, no playoffs, no Stanley Cup winner.

I know both the owners and players are trying to win a public relations war right now, making the other side look more responsible for the present situation where another season is on the brink of Armageddon and we stare no NHL hockey in the face again.

Well, to both sides, I simply say this: Stop posturing, start negotiating and solve this ridiculous impasse now!

Once again, from a fan’s perspective, we have billionaire owners and millionaire players fighting over how big a slice of the pie each side is going to take.

What about the fans? Most of us are neither millionaires nor billionaires. We just enjoy watching the game of hockey played at the highest level and we’re quite honestly stuck in the middle of a fight we don’t want, don’t need and did nothing to create. We just want the season to start on time.

If we do bother to look at the issues, it’s tough to blame the players quite honestly, even though it takes two to tango and there are things they could have done to help expedite the negotiation process.

I mean, flash back to 2005. The last lockout finally ended. The owners got nearly everything they wanted. The term used by Commissioner Gary Bettman was “cost certainty” and the elephant in the room was a salary cap. The players said it was a non-starter. The owners insisted they needed one. Well, the owners won. When the 2005-06 season started, the owners had cost certainty. Apparently, it isn’t good enough.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Since 2005-06, the NHL’s revenues have gone up from $2.2 billion to $3.3 billion. I’m no economist, but a 50 percent increase in revenue over seven years sounds pretty darn good to me, especially considering the sorry state of the economy during the Great Recession.

Throughout the season, we in the media are treated to a series of e-mails from the league telling us how the league’s official website has never gotten more hits, how television ratings have never been higher and the sale of merchandise just reached a new record total.

Since the last lockout, the league signed a new lucrative deal with NBC that provides cable and network coverage in the United States and actually pays the league money up front instead of a revenue sharing arrangement. Off the ice, things should look pretty good.

On the ice, things look pretty good, too. The players and owners actually got together after the lockout and cooperated to find ways to improve the quality and flow of the game. “The New NHL” featured less clutching and grabbing, less obstruction and a little more scoring.

Did it work exactly as planned? No. But it was a bold experiment that improved the overall product and better yet, showed that when the players and owners worked together, change for the better was possible.

There has also been competitive balance, more or less, since 2005. In the seven seasons since the last lockout ended, 29 of the 30 NHL teams have made the playoffs at least once (sorry Maple Leafs fans). 

Seven different teams have won the Stanley Cup and 12 different teams have reached the Stanley Cup Final with just Pittsburgh and Detroit reaching the final round more than once. Six of the seven final rounds went six games or more with the only exception being Anaheim’s five-game triumph over Ottawa back in 2007.

Sure, there are still big-market teams and small-market teams, but under the salary cap, the distance between what the Red Wings, Rangers and Leafs spend and what the Coyotes, Blue Jackets and Islanders spend on salary in a season is at least in the same ballpark even if it still isn’t quite a level playing field.

Do changes still have to be made? Absolutely, but it seems foolhardy to blow the sport up to make a few tweaks in revenue distribution.

So, it’s hard for fans to understand how the owners could get their cost certainty, have an impressive increase in revenue, are continuing to dish out lucrative free agent contracts and are still demanding that the players make additional concessions. It still appears the owners are asking the players to save the owners from themselves.

But even discussing the minute details of this dispute is upsetting because again, the millionaires and billionaires are fighting and as usual, it’s the average person who is going to get hurt the most. The person who works at the arena selling food or programs won’t have a job to go to.

The person who owns the restaurant or tavern near the arena won’t have full arenas guaranteeing business 41 times a year and the owner may have to close down or even let go a bartender or a waitress because of less business.

The store that sells hockey jerseys and memorabilia will also be hurt as frustrated fans buy less merchandise. These average people aren’t millionaires and billionaires and probably can’t handle a long labor stoppage as easily as the people who caused it.

There was also negative fallout from the last lockout. The mainstream media reduced its coverage of the NHL and that hasn’t quite returned to pre-2005 levels. Fewer newspapers send beat reporters to cover road games and most American cable television networks pay less attention to the NHL than they did before the last work stoppage. No one knows for sure what the fallout will be of another lockout as far as media coverage is concerned, but rest assured, it won’t be positive for the league.

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And the fans will simply have to find other ways to entertain themselves during fall and winter until this dispute is settled. It won’t be pleasant, but hey, the owners and players should take note: We survived that one year without hockey quite well, thank you and if we have to, we can do it again. People found other interests to keep them entertained. NHL hockey is something people watch for fun and while sometimes it feels like it is, it’s not life or death.

The players and the owners best not take the fans for granted. While the sport did bounce back after the lockout last time, some fans got fed up and were lost forever. Others lost a lot of their passion for the sport and became only casual fans instead of fanatics.

There are only so many times fans who love the game can be neglected by the powers that be and keep coming back for more. Hockey fans are loyal, but we’re not stupid. Keep testing us, and eventually, more and more fans will find other ways to spend their entertainment dollars.

The bottom line right now is that as we begin the second NHL lockout in eight years, nobody wins. Not the players, not the owners and certainly not the fans. If a settlement in this matter is inevitable, both sides better realize that that sooner they reach that settlement, the better off it is for everybody.

So the clock struck midnight, the lockout is on and there is no hero in sight.

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