This past weekend, the NHL and the NHL Players Association met for three days of meetings in New York City in an attempt to end the league's third lockout since 1994-95. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr led their respective sides in formal discussion for the first time since September 12. While this is a step in the right direction, the fact that the two sides had yet to meet until now truly exemplifies what is wrong with the NHL.
When the most recent collective bargaining agreement was signed in 2005, the NHL and the Player’s Association knew that they would have seven years to iron out a new deal and avoid another lockout. The fact that both sides let the collective bargaining agreement expire without an earnest fight is insulting to the fans.
With the preseason gone and regular season games disappearing on the horizon, it is ludicrous that the NHL thinks it can leisurely schedule meetings without even a sense of urgency. What has either side been doing since September 12 that has made any progress in bringing the league back? Even the meetings of this past weekend were centered around secondary issues, such as health and safety, that sidestep the main disagreement. We’ve seen players escape to Europe and general managers send their rosters to the American Hockey League, but why haven’t there been any serious negotiations since?
What will even be more frustrating is that when the league ultimately comes back, we’ll have a large “Thank You Fans” scribbled on every ice surface and NHL.com will be loaded with “best fans in the league” feel-good fluff as if this mea culpa makes up for not successfully ironing out an agreement in time.
And where does the NHL get the hubris that things will return to normal once the lockout is eventually settled when it took years to recover from the last one?
2004-05 was an embarrassment. The NHL came back from the lockout with neutered pride. Yes, it returned with a better on-ice product with increased parity, a salary-cap and the exciting new shootout, but poker had overtaken it on ESPN and the NHL was banished to Outdoor Living Network—a network better known for its fishing programs. The NHL has recovered admirably: OLN became Versus, which then became the respectable NBC Sports Network. The Winter Classic gave the sport a premier television event and the league has clawed its way back to relevance. By swiftly handling the impending lockout crisis, the NHL could have proved its viability as a league and supremacy over the NBA, who recently let regular season games slip away. However, as always, the NHL squandered the momentum it had since the last lockout and here we are again.
The arrogance in believing that fans will come back as supportive as ever is foolish. It’s time such as these when I wish there were another World Hockey Association (1972-79) to hold the NHL accountable.