The NHL has had the backing of a silent partner throughout the lockout, which is about to move into its fourth month on the calendar.
When Gary Bettman locked players out of training camp in September, he did it with a smug demeanor that he expected his league to survive the work stoppage and that players would eventually march to the NHL's tune.
The NHL had the backing of NBC. The television network shows NHL games on its prime network as well as its sports network and it signed a deal in 2011 with the league to pay $2 billion over a 10-year period for the broadcast rights.
NBC has already lost one of its primary attractions during the 2011-12 season. The NHL will not play the Winter Classic on New Year's Day between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings.
NBC should be angry about the lockout. It may have been busy televising the Olympics this summer and the NFL during the fall, but there is no NHL and the NBC Sports Network has not been televising multiple hockey games per week since the beginning of October when the season was scheduled to start.
NBC has allowed itself to be a pawn in the lockout.
While the network does not want to involve itself in negotiations between the league and the NHL Players' Association, it appears to be in the corner of Bettman and the owners.
NBC has reportedly paid the NHL the $180 million it is scheduled to receive this year (source: Philly.com). If the lockout lasts the entire season, the network would be "given" an extra year at the end of the contract.
Philly.com's Sam Carchidi quoted an NBC spokesman as saying the lockout did not take the "league by surprise."
The spokesman pointed to the "protection" the league had at the back end of the deal.
That means the network has given tacit approval of the lockout. It's as if the network is saying that it's above it all and it doesn't care if there is hockey in 2012-13 because it will get another year of broadcast/cable rights in 2021-22.
Gee, I wonder how that plays with the NBC non-sports bosses as well as the parent company's shareholders. Paying $180 million while getting nothing in return other than one additional year of broadcast rights at the end of the deal? Who signed off on that one?
NBC does not have to get involved in negotiations in a matter between the NHL and the NHLPA. However, it can't allow the perception that it is on the side of the owners and that the lockout is not important to them.
When the NHL is allowed to look sideways at the players and know it can put pressure on them because the league is getting all the TV money that is supposed to come its way, there's a certain smugness to the tone of the talks that wouldn't be there otherwise.
So the network is involved in the lockout whether it wants to be or not.
NBC needs to rethink its position.
Not only accepting a year at the end of the deal a weak position for NBC, it sends a message that the league is clearly on the side of the owners.