NHL Lockout: Gary Bettman and the Five Biggest Villians of the NHL Lockout
Here we are again, hockey fans, the place that nobody wants to be. For the second time in eight years, the owners have locked out the players, and the start of the 2012-13 is now in serious jeopardy.
I once interviewed a former NHL player who was then working in the front office of a minor league team, and he said something that stuck with me: Hockey is a great sport but a horrible business.
There is plenty of blame to go around, unfortunately, and while one side seems a lot more at fault than the other, there are no angels in this mess.
The bottom line still is this: No matter who "wins" the lockout, the fans will be the big losers, as will the little guys who depend on hockey to make their livelihood. The millionaire players and billionaire owners will recover a lot quicker than the team employees, bar owners, arena employees and memorabilia dealers ever will.
Hopefully, this will resemble the NFL's most recent lockout (one preseason game cancelled) than the last NHL lockout (the 2004-05 season entirely wiped out).
Here's a look at the top five parties to blame for the current fiasco we see in the NHL as the lockout begins.
5. Bob Goodenow
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Sure, Bob Goodenow, the former head of the NHLPA, is not involved directly in these negotiations, but the way he handled things back in 2004-05 has a lot to do with where we are today.
The owners demanded a salary cap in 2004, and Goodenow said it was a non-starter, that the players would never accept it.
By the time the lockout ended, the players caved on the salary cap, agreed to an across-the-board salary cut and essentially lost on all major issues that the last lockout was about. This all took place only AFTER the entire 2004-05 season was cancelled.
Goodenow's poor handling of negotiations last time around helped give the owners confidence that they can get what they want again. All they have to do is push the players hard enough and long enough.
Sure, Donald Fehr is a tougher and more experienced negotiator than Goodenow was, but let's face it, if the owners weren't so confident that they will eventually get what they want from locking the players out, they wouldn't do it.
It's no coincidence that Goodenow was gone from his post so soon after the 2004-05 lockout. The owners' success in that lockout helped make this one possible.
4. Roger Goodell and David Stern
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Both the NFL and the NBA have had lockouts in the last 14 months, and in both cases, the owners got most of what they wanted when agreements were finally reached and the labor impasse concluded.
The NFL under Roger Goodell lost only one preseason game as a result of their lockout, but owners gained important concessions from the players, including a rookie wage scale, the salary cap and credit for stadium investments.
Stern's NBA had a longer labor stoppage. The 2011-12 season started late and was reduced to 66 games instead of the usual 82. In the end, the owners again got important concessions from the players in the areas of salary as a percentage of revenue and free-agency exceptions.
The fact that both the NFL and NBA were able to win concessions from their players again only served to give the NHL owners more encouragement that they, too, could earn givebacks from the players and increase their slice of the revenue pie.
3. Donald Fehr
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There is little doubt that the owners are a lot more responsible for this labor impasse than the players are, and it's tough for me to criticize an experienced and expert union head like Donald Fehr, but I have to based on what's happened thus far.
Throughout the past year, Fehr has been slow to open negotiations and has set up some barriers to the plans of the owners that just seemed unnecessary and almost gratuitous (like opposing the owners' realignment plan).
The main criticism of Fehr is that he should have known how serious the owners were about a lockout and should have entered into intense negotiations well before mid-to-late August, when the two sides were just weeks away from the expiration of the old CBA.
By waiting so long, there wasn't as much time to settle things once negotiations actually got underway.
I know last-minute negotiations are the norm in labor negotiations, but more groundwork needed to be put down to make a timely solution possible, and it doesn't seem that Fehr went out of his way to make sure that took place.
2. Gary Bettman
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Please note that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is in the No. 2 spot for a reason: He basically carries out the wishes of the NHL owners.
I know I'll take plenty of flak for this, but remember that the NHL commissioner is beholden to the 30 owners, and his only job is to make them happy. Bettman doesn't really answer to the fans or the players; he answers to his bosses and he has exactly 30 of them.
Rightly or wrongly, many fans still feel the commissioner has an anti-Canadian bias and is not, in his heart, a hockey man. While I can't speak for his heart, Bettman is very intelligent and must know the game inside and out by now after serving as commissioner for almost 18 years.
That being said, there are plenty of reasons to criticize Bettman. This is the third labor impasse under Bettman's leadership, and after awhile, that can't be a coincidence. There is something about his strategy or style that seems to encourage or at the very least lead to conflict in these negotiations.
Bettman is the face of the NHL and as such, he gets a lot of anger and frustration directed his way. Say what you want about his style, but in the past two lockouts, Bettman has helped get results for his bosses. He is hoping the third time is a charm. Fans just want to see the season start on time.
1. The Owners
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In the movie "Wall Street," Gordon Gekko famously said that, "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." If that is indeed the case, then the NHL owners are very, very good.
The owners got what they were looking for in the last lockout: a salary cap. The league said they needed "cost certainty" and they got it.
Since the end of the last lockout, NHL revenue has increased by 50 percent from $2.2 billion to $3.3 billion per season. The league has the best U.S. network TV contract it has ever had in terms of both exposure and revenue, and TV ratings and attendance are up despite the horrible state of the economy since 2007.
But no, the owners want more. They claim that the numbers are skewed because some of the smaller-market teams can't keep up with the larger-market teams, and therefore, despite the increased revenues, most of the league's 30 teams are still losing money.
The players have countered with a plan that increases revenue sharing between the "haves" and the "have-not" franchises, but the owners figure they would rather get more concessions from the players than divide the pie more evenly amongst themselves.
The owners have seen both the NBA and NFL get concessions in their most recent lockouts, which only makes them want more givebacks from their players.
This is not a strike, it's a lockout, and the owners are calling for it despite earning more income than ever before even though we are still struggling through "The Great Recession."
Nobody is more responsible right now for the fact that we do not have NHL hockey than the owners.
The Bottom Line
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The bottom line remains this: The talk of partnership between the players and the owners that took place after the end of the 2005 lockout is a thing of the past. The owners are out for every last penny they can get, and they don't care if they hurt their employees, the players or the fans in order to get it.
The players will be hurt, for certain. Like all professional athletes, they have a limited amount of time to earn large salaries, and missing even part of a season is money they will lose and never get back.
The owners are in the best situation out of everybody. They are billionaires and can afford the short-term losses associated with this lockout that they, themselves created, better than millionaire players and the average income team employees who will get laid off and will get hurt the most.
The biggest losers in this lockout are the game of hockey, those who earn a living off it like team employees, bar and restaurant owners and memorabilia dealers and, of course, fans who just want to see their favorite sport and probably don't care about the details in a dispute between billionaires an millionaires.
The owners basically think the fans will come back no matter what they do. That will depend on what happens in the coming weeks or even months, but rest assured, if it's months, the league risks alienating more and more of its paying customers, something no business can afford to do.
When it's all said and done, the fact remains that right now, we do not have NHL hockey and we don't know how long we'll have to wait to get it back.
That doesn't make anybody happy.