Sunday, at 9 a.m. EST, the NHL released a statement that immediately drew the ire of both fans and professional hockey players on Twitter and across other social media platforms. The short statement fails to clarify any of the questions that fans had going into midnight Saturday night, when the then-current collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA expired.
At midnight, the entire industry and culture surrounding hockey, from star players down to the guy who sells Miller Lite tallboys in the upper concourse, was thrown into jeopardy. Considering the state of hockey over the past season, the effects could be devastating to the progress the NHL has made since the 2005-06 lockout. People are beginning to notice the hypocrisy and general ineptitude that has become inherent in the corporate culture of the National Hockey League. The 229-word, unapologetic statement did nothing to alleviate concerns.
It’s going to be hard to forgive both sides when this is all over, because, as many have said, it’s millionaires and billionaires fighting over their slice of the pie. Meanwhile, NHL teams signed many big deals in the time leading up to CBA expiration, which would seem antithetical to the owners’ insistence that the current deal is unfair in both its revenue percentage allowed to players, contract sizes, and contract lengths.
A six-year, $23.8 million dollar deal was struck between John Carlson and the Washington Capitals--a deal that, if the owners had gotten their way, might have become illegal when the clock struck midnight at the end of September 15th. None of the other under-the-wire deals were as long or as valuable (see: Tyler Ennis, Carlo Colaiacavo, Justin Abdelkader, Shane Doan), but the fact that they were made at all seemed to show everyone watching that anything said at the bargaining table was symbolic at best. Each side took what they could get from the old CBA before entering into a deep and impenetrable rhetorical mire, with October 11th, the scheduled start date of NHL regular season games, weighted with sandbags at the bottom of the swamp.
It’s funny, because the statement says that successful changes to the CBA “are attainable through sensible, focused negotiation--not through rhetoric.” Rhetoric can be the only thing disguising such a huge battle that is focused largely on money. If players can get what they need to feel secure in their jobs and the league maintains a percentage of revenue that allows it to operate profitably, that comes down to pure mathematics.
The whole negotiation is rhetorical; the dollar sums and percentages are theoretical. The fact that this has happened multiple times since 1992 not only shows gross mismanagement, but a fundamentally damaged business culture that will not be reformed until this nonsense is stopped.
Neither side can negotiate until it does, because the NHL is, literally, a business. This doesn’t exist for fans or players, as much as we love believing that when our team raises the Stanley Cup or when we hang posters on our bedroom walls. The togetherness and excitement we feel as sports fans is a side effect of a business venture, a multi-billion dollar one. Businesses fail and hemorrhage money when they don’t actually go out there and earn their revenue.
The negotiations have never made any progress on a business end. Take away the philosophical differences that players and owners are undoubtedly dealing with. It’s very clear that no one has ever said, “Let’s go out and do what we love and earn our livelihoods on October 11th.” And it’s this lack of businesslike cooperation that has led to the lockout, that may lose an entire season.
The NHL's statement concludes, “This is a time of year for all attention to be focused on the ice, not on a meeting room.The League, the Clubs and the Players all have a stake in resolving our bargaining issues appropriately and getting the puck dropped as soon as possible. We owe it to each other, to the game and, most of all, to the fans.”
This statement is egregious in its naiveté. First of all, let’s be clear: the fans in this situation are owed nothing. The NHL exists as a business in order to take our money. Were it that the League existed for us, it would be a whole heck of a lot cheaper. Second, because it is a business, yes, your focus should be on the meeting room, because that’s where deals are made and that is how businesses gain momentum, structure, and management.
And lastly, if the League, the Clubs, and the Players wanted the puck to be dropped as soon as possible, this wouldn’t have progressed at such a gelatinous pace. In fact, it may not have happened at all.
Lest we forget, also, that despite record revenues and unprecedented levels of parity, the League has faced increased problems in the culture of its game, starting at obvious things like increased head injuries and a shocking lack of player compliance to combat them, and ending with plain old disrespectful behavior and poor, unprofessional attitudes. The disrespect, we are discovering, is systemic. Everyone is screaming “me first!” Obviously, this is antithetical to negotiation, and antithetical to the positive culture we try to foster as a sporting community. Either no one gets any bit of what they want, or someone caves.
The NHL didn’t even want to meet with the players Saturday night--they said they saw no purpose in holding a formal meeting. Much like the potential online streaming quality of KHL games this winter, things are going slowly, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
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