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Hockey On Lock?

Michael Louie

10.01.13

Last Wednesday night, as the hockey world waited for news from a late meeting between the NHL commissioner, Gary Bettman, the team owners, and the NHL Players Association, the clock ticking to determine if there would even be a season this year, ESPN analyst Pierre LeBrun gave hockey writers, fans, and pundits alike something else to whittle away the time. In a viral display of deftness and accidental ingenuity, LeBrun posted on his Twitter account a cellphone photo of a crowded, worn-down reporters room, perhaps unanxiously awaiting more meaningless banter from one side or the other for the Nth time in four months. What the Twitter universe instantly saw, though, was TSN analyst Darren Dreger caught mid-act adjusting his tie in the dull, blue glow of a laptop screen, giving him a somewhat decayed appearance himself from the lockout, looking simultaneously mid-burp and wholly unperturbed. Within minutes, Twitter followers pounced on Dreger’s visage, Photoshopping his head on every iconic pop-culture photo they could, from the recent Ikea monkey standing in a posh shearling coat, to a bystander in the crowd as Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald—Oswald’s mouth caught in the unmistakable O from the gut-shot, Dreger unimpressed. The tag #Dregerface arced skyward among the hockey faithful. The Hollywood Reporter jumped aboard. For part of an evening, the hockey media forgot about the agonizing deliberations going on on the other side of a door, but only for a while.

The next day the joy was gone and the monotony was back. With roughly little more than a week left to salvage a season, the general feelings of hopelessness and dread mixed with resentment and simmering bad blood, unmistakably aimed most directly at Bettman, rose like steam on the top of this morning’s fresh ordure. Nick Cotsonika, a writer for Yahoo! Sports, summed it up with a Tweet. “‘We wait, and we wonder why, and it is a waste of time.’ Last line of my column—from Sept. 16. I feel like I have nothing new to say.” Despite leaked reports of an  NHL memo alerting off-ice officials of technical changes for “the upcoming season”—the same kind of prescient memo that preceded by two weeks the end of the 1994-1995 lockout—and the slow-but-steady trickle of players back from whichever Russian or European team they flocked toward when the lockout was all but inevitable, did nothing to restore the sheen to a clean sheet of ice. This morning was another one in the same in its non-news. The cogs of productive talks between the NHLPA, led by Donald Fehr, former executive director of the same entity for Major League Baseball, and the owners and Bettman moved only with great exertion and force. This was morning 110 of the lockout, and it was like all the others.

But by day 113, we woke up to something new. The lockout, which had dragged on since September 15, was over. A very tired Gary Bettman emerged from the Sofitel Hotel on W. 44th Street at 5:30AM to talk to the press. Donald Fehr, unhindered by necktie as he so often appeared throughout the lockout, slapped him on the shoulder and said, “Well, that was painless.” Scot Beckenbaugh, deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliatory Service, the man who almost literally forced the two sides to meet on day 112, quite literally running back and forth between the hotel and the NHL offices nearby, emerged as the unsung hero, managing the 16-hour meeting, the results of which we were now reading in the morning news. The true ugliness and rancor between the sides—the players and the owners, the owners and Bettman, Bettman and the players—will probably never be made known, but when characterizing the battle between the NHLPA and the owners, the words “bitter,” “excruciating,” “contentious,” and “obstinate” were among the top adjectives, while “idiot” and “cancers” ranked among the top nouns. It stayed that way until the end. Bettman threatened to cancel the season. The players threatened to dissolve the union and file anti-trust suits against the league. The New York Times reported, “As the talks were going on, the union voted overwhelmingly to give Fehr authorization to walk away from the table… and send everything to the courts. Such was the level of distrust between the players and the league.” But in the Sunday morning sunshine, despite the Ts to be crossed and tentative agreements to be finalized, a small percentage of America was happy they had hockey again.

A small percentage because unless one were looking for the news, you probably missed it. Because, outside of Canada, most American sports fans were consumed with the afternoon’s NFL Wildcard games, the college Bowl games, mid-season NBA games, or women’s college basketball. Anything but hockey, because out of all of this, outside of Canadian media, few people noticed that hockey was missing, let alone that the season was in jeopardy. A quick glance of ESPN.com’s home page on Sunday evening revealed just as much: RGIII, BCS games, what happened to the Knicks last night, Packers-49ers preview. The biggest news in professional hockey in four months was decidedly below the fold. And as hockey pundits and bloggers parse out the winners and losers from the much agonized-over deal that came only as the agreed-upon, self-imposed deadline dawned, many will say emphatically that the biggest losers of all were the fans. That the fans were the ones who suffered the most, that they deserved better from professionals, and that they didn’t care about the “millionaires versus billionaires” battle going on behind closed doors. That the end of the lockout finds most fans so resentful and disgusted by the stoppage that many are choosing not to come back. That’s what they’ll write, but it’s not quite right. The fans certainly deserve better than the third lockout in 20 years but they’re not the biggest loser. That distinction belongs solely to the National Hockey League.

Last year the NHL was a growing $3.3 billion business. In June, the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup for the first time in its 45-year history in a dominant post-season performance. Not since Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Kings in 1988 had the city seen such an embrace of its hockey team, who for the last few seasons flourished under the superb goaltending of Jonathan Quick, but usually ended up short because of its lack of clutch offense. 2012 is the year they put it all together, and the NHL finally got a solid foothold in a major West market, something they’d sought for decades. Then the lockout happened. Then basketball season started. As Adam Kirshenblatt wrote in his column for HockeyBuzz.com, “[A]fter this mess, all momentum is gone from last year’s Stanley Cup winner. Since the Kings won the Cup, the Lakers went out and got Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the Clippers have become one of the toasts of the NBA… The Kings are now back to the 5th or 6th page of the sports section which is really too bad.”

This has happened before: in 1994, the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup since 1940, ending a 54-year curse. Sports Illustrated famously declared the NHL on the upswing as Ranger-mania took over the biggest media market in the country. The next year: a lockout, not unlike this years. Half a season lost, all the momentum for hockey to emerge from behind the coattails of the NBA lost. In 2004, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup, the first team in the southern expansion to accomplish the Herculean task. People took notice after all the mediocrity of its football and baseball teams. Finally, a championship team to root for, right? Wrong. The next NHL “season” was a complete wash. There was no season, and by the time the 2005-2006 season started, few of those new fans who put hope into a winning ice hockey team in Florida remembered they had a team, let alone realized their state actually has two. The National Hockey League has lost a total of about 2400 games since 1993, the year Bettman took over as commissioner. The figure is more than three times higher than any other major sports league in America during the same time period, and not surprisingly, the NHL continues to struggle to find its share of the market.

Some good things actually came out of this year’s lockout, despite all the wrangling and bad blood. The players established a pension, which is player-funded and safeguarded from owner shortfalls. The PA hailed it as the “centerpiece” of their plan. The NHL and owners got more: a 50/50 split on hockey related revenue (down from the player-advantageous 57-43), which makes the NHL more akin to the NBA and NFL in this respect; lowering the salary cap from $70.2 million to $64.3 million, while lowering the cap floor; limits on contract length and salary fluctuation—technically put in place to avoid “front-loading” contracts in which a player is paid the bulk of his salary in the first few years, then trickling to something like $500,000 in his twilight. Interestingly, this last provision was put in place to counter the exact same deals owners utilized to circumvent the last collective bargaining agreement. This is illustrated most recently by the Minnesota Wild signing defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts. These contracts break down like this:

Year 1: $2 million base salary + $10 million signing bonus = $12 million
Year 2: $2 million base salary + $10 million signing bonus = $12 million
Year 3: $6 million base + $5 million signing bonus = $11 million
Years 4-8: $9 million base
Year 9: $8 million base
Year 10: $6 million base
Year 11: $2 million base
Years 12-13: $1 million base

The new CBA directly addresses the kind of circumvention wizardry pushed by the same people who demanded its abolition. Minnesota is hardly unique: the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils have been castigated recently for their own shenanigans, as have others. Hell, the Flyers offer-sheeted Shea Weber—regarded universally as one of the top-3 defensemen in the league—a 14-year, $115 million contract over the summer. And while it would have made many a Flyers fan’s day (mine included), it all but forced the small-market  Nashville Predators to ante up and play big-boy/big-city hockey and match the offer, just so they could maintain an air of competitiveness, consistency, and commitment to its fans—even as some models project the move could basically bankrupt the franchise. To illustrate the point: Weber is now owed $27 million in bonuses and salary just this year. The Predators brought in $27 million in ticket sales last year. Now factor in a lost half-season and begin to understand the irony of the owners and league who actively pursued and allowed these kinds of deals, and made them in “good faith,” while knowing they’d target these contracts over the summer.

Still, there’s a tremendous amount of relief among the hockey faithful now that the lockout is over. One might compare it to the weight shed from Mitt Romney’s shoulders as he stepped onstage to deliver his concession speech. It’s that palpable, but only to a relatively small group. Most of Canada is happy. The fairweather fans will be harder to win back; after all, hockey is starting again, buried under the NFL playoff crush, the Clippers’ feel-good-story-of-the-year, whatever major college sports event is happening after the BCS (I guess March Madness), and probably next weekend’s WWE PayPerView event. The fact that the season may not start until 19 January makes the end of the lockout even less relevant for most of America, but in the long term the NHL dealt itself irrevocable damage with its inability to regulate its own growth. Major sponsors like Kraft and Molson Coors have either walked away or are prepping lawsuits. The Winter Classic, the league’s single most impressive spectacle, was unceremoniously cancelled.

Most of the ire will be aimed, perhaps fairly, perhaps not, at Gary Bettman, a man whose countenance often evinces an impish, Napoleonic-like figure bent on total autocracy. While this may work well in outlets like The Onion, it clearly can’t be good for Bettman’s annual reception as he walks onto the ice to deliver the Stanley Cup to this year’s winner, an event in which he routinely and roundly regarded with loud boos. Things will only be worse this year, but at least we’ll have one. The larger issue is not discerning the lockout’s winners and losers, but rather if the NHL can salvage its repeatedly-tarnished reputation and deliver on its promise to the faithful and become relevant to the converted.

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