At the end of the 2004-05 lockout — a nuclear winter for hockey fans — union exec Mike Gartner assessed the fallout of the 310-day dispute.
“I hope it never happens again,” an exhausted Gartner told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re both going to kill each other if we do it again.”
But eight years forward, on the precipice of another extended work stoppage, there’s a better chance that some fans die of boredom from rich-man rhetoric than any boardroom violence. The NHL is a $3.3-billion industry, the players are hardly starving and the pro game is generally an entertaining product that’s going global.
So when they finally settle, all that matters to them is which side did a better job covering its assets. The players have to maximize their earning power in short careers and set themselves up for life after hockey. The owners want a bigger share of league revenue or a way to bail out some of their weak U.S. markets. That’s hardly news or grounds for a street brawl, in fact the fan on the street is already yawning about a possible lockout with a “wake-me-when-it’s-over” attitude.
“This time, we know going in that a lockout won’t kill the game,” said Gord Stellick, former general manager of the Maple Leafs, now with Hockey Night In Canada. “We know the players aren’t as militant, we know the fight won’t get as personal as it was between Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow and we know a lot of NHL people think games in October and November are for the dogs and can be compressed later. It won’t be the end of the world if a lockout starts.
“In 1994 (when a lockout claimed half a season), people said they’d ruined the game, but they came back. And as bitter as 2004 was, with the whole season getting flushed, fans returned almost the next day.”
Thus, both sides have spent this past summer sparring in the media, watching the clock tick down to Sept. 15. The players had faint hope the league would play beyond that date under the current agreement or that commissioner Bettman and the 30 owners might get a bit excited about its peace overtures on revenue sharing.
If there is any glimmer from two days of near wasted negotiating time in Toronto, the two actually considered tenets of the other’s main proposals ahead of this week’s key meetings in New York. The players are going to concede some of their 57% edge in revenues, if the owners show they have a viable long-range plan to grow the game.
If a lockout ensues, many think the season’s drop-dead date will be Jan. 1 — the Winter Classic and the halfway point of the schedule. There will be 100,000-plus ready to jam the Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich., for the Leafs and Red Wings, with a continent-wide TV audience. Before that happens, someone has to blink.
“What’s missing so far is someone who has the ear of both sides,” Stellick said. “Either someone from the owners’ side who emerged in past lockouts such as Pittsburgh’s Paul Martha, the late Harley Hotchkiss from Calgary or a player with the status or Mario Lemieux. That would be a positive.”
Bettman is determined to claw back what the owners lost the past few years, as the cap they achieved began working against them. The league has made progress in growth areas such as broadcasting, social media and benefitted from the strong Canadian dollar. But mavericks couldn’t rein in their own spending or fix some sick franchises. Bettman has to save them from themselves.
Across the table, it’s clear that new union head Donald Fehr wasn’t recruited from baseball’s labour wars to buy peanuts and Crackerjack. He has used his power to crush a season before and has the sway to keep 700 members onside, a major failing of Goodenow as 2004-05 unfolded.
“The players are well informed through social media,” Philadelphia Flyers’ Maxime Talbot said during a break in one bargaining session last week.
“They’re more educated than back in (2004).” Fehr is a hard nut in meetings, but seems far more at ease with the public and media than Goodenow. He’ll linger after formal press conferences, talk about his favourite food and playing his guitar. He has maintained that fans will always take the side of athletes in the end, because they’re the main attraction, not the suits.
But right now, there’s no one to root for in this game.