When Gil Stein ended his tenure as the NHL’s last President, the owners hired Gary Bettman as the league’s first Commissioner. His mandate included four major tasks: sell the game in the U.S., complete the league’s plans with expansion, modernize the views of the owners and, most importantly, end labour unrest.
On December 18th, 2010, Donald Fehr was voted in as the executive director of the NHLPA by a consensus of the entire membership. Within the description of his new position, Fehr vowed to focus on the “collective bargaining agreement, revenue sharing and the economics of the game”.
Great, two representative leaders on both sides of the coin with common ground in a major league issue that had been in a tailspin for almost the last twenty years. The NHL was bound to be set on the right track finally, right?
Apparently not… Ironic, since that on Labour Day weekend, labour talks between the NHL and its Player’s Association have been halted.
THE NHLPA’s MOB MENTALITY
Who would have thought that when Fehr accepted the job with the NHLPA that his mandate would be a series of puzzle pieces that he planned to fit together to form a bigger picture? The concept of examining the economics of the NHL in relation to current revenue sharing practices to prepare for an upcoming CBA negotiation. Does that even make sense as an efficient means of representing seven hundred plus players, where salaries range from half a million to a staggering fourteen million now?
When a labour dispute breaks out in professional sports, the point of view of the fans is that it’s based on a bunch of millionaires fighting with a bunch of billionaires, over a whole lot of hard earned money that the fans pay just to watch a damn hockey game. Unfortunately, it’s a point of view that is voiced the loudest and receives the least amount of consideration; if any at all.
This, of course, should be given some latitude as it’s written with a degree of tongue-in-cheek. Fehr and the player representatives from each team basically have one job, and that’s to get everything they can for themselves and the hundreds of brethren they represent against the fat cats that they work for; yeah, the owners.
This also isn’t to suggest that the fans should have any part in the negotiation process, which would simply be absurd. It has never been a stretch for the fans to side with the players over ownership. After all, it’s the players that we go to see and it’s their names that we put on the backs of our jerseys, not the owners. When there is a break down in the process, significant enough to hinder the fans being able to watch their favorite players, then that burden, that fault, inevitably falls on the owners.
The fans don’t care about the numbers behind a labour dispute. All they see is their money, on an individual level, being flushed down the proverbial toilet because the sport doesn’t know how to manage these funds as a collective. Fans that support the players feel that the NHLPA deserves more because, without them, there is no game on the ice to watch. As for off the ice, it’s the names of their players that drive merchandise sales. How many times have any of you said with disdain in your voice, “I just don’t get it! I would play for free, if it meant I got to play in the NHL!” Well, you might show more favour towards the owners’ position then. At the end of the day, in the heart of a fan, no matter how unrealistic, both sides are right.
The NHLPA and the players know this, and they use it to put themselves into a more favourable light with the fans; and quite frankly, fans should be tired of it. Why is it necessary for the NHLPA to defend their position to the fans with methods that largely resemble the modus operandi of the Mob? Much like the mob likes to strong-arm people into paying protection money, some fans may find it odd that players with salaries in excess of $5 million seem to have the strongest opinions that the players need more. Yes, it’s important for those who make the most money to stand up for the lesser paid players because they indeed carry more clout, but don’t go to the media and sell a tag line to the fans when you just don’t believe the words that are coming out of your own mouth.
”We are all fans of the game as well. We just want to play hockey!”
– Every NHL player that talks to the media
Come on guys. If that was the case, then the fans would be looking forward to the start of training camp and not worried about the coming and going of September 15th.
THE NHL AND ITS LACK OF UNITY
Prior to the hiring of Bettman in 1993, the NHL had suffered one work stoppage in 1992, and it lasted ten days. After the hiring of Count Bettman, there have been two more, with what looks like a third on the way. The 1994-95 season had to be shortened from 84 games to 48. The entire 2004-05 season was lost to a lockout that lasted 310 days, the longest in sports history. It also marked the NHL as the first professional sport to lose an entire season due to a labour dispute.
Looking back at the original mandate that was given to Gary when the owners offered him employment, there may be cause for concern.
It’s obvious that we haven’t seen an end to labour unrest. In fact it’s gotten worse, significantly worse. Bettman has been successful in over-seeing NHL expansion into six new markets. At the same time, many have questioned those as successes as he opted to choose cities in the Southern U.S. rather than more favourable markets in the North and even Canada. These expanded markets have continued to be a source of both ridicule and strife for the NHL. Because of this strife, maybe Gary did not manage his mandate to sell the game to the U.S., but did manage to just sell out the game, period.
Then there is, of course, his task to modernize the views of the owners. Depending on how you define “modernizing”, this is what has to be seen as Bettman’s greatest failure in his tenure as Commissioner. If it is the job of the Commissioner to represent the ownership groups of thirty NHL markets as one unified voice for the game of hockey, then Gary gets a big fat “F” for sure.
How does he negotiate with the NHLPA with any reasonable expectation of success, when at the same time, owners are negotiating massive contracts behind his back? What must have been the look on his face when he sat across the table from Donald Fehr, trying to make his case that the owners just can’t afford to pay the players like they have in the past, that it’s time for the players to give a little back; only to have Fehr look at him, and without blinking say, “Hall and Eberle just signed in Edmonton for $6 Million… each.” I imagine he would have the same look on his face as he does in the title picture above.
It’s not exactly clear to a lot of people what it is Gary Bettman has to offer the NHL. He is viewed as failing miserably for almost two decades and has dragged down the stature of the league to that of the punchline that plagues him. What is even more confusing is that he has the unilateral support of the ownership groups, yet he basically is on the outside of the group looking in. What does he do on a day to day basis if he is not involved in the inner circle of the owners? The NHL is not in a position to think about expansion, he’s already sold out the game and he clearly has no method for changing or modernizing the views of the owners. Oh, and we are headed for another work stoppage.
Why did this guy make $8 Million last year?
Maybe a starting point in finding a solution to all this is for both sides to shut up for a minute and actually listen to the fans for once. Not about percentage numbers or revenue dollars, but to one suggestion that we have all been yelling until we we’re blue in the face for the last fifteen years…