If Only The WHA Were Around Today

Thirty years ago a small segment of motivated business people observed what the American Football League did to the National Football League, and decided that hockey and football were really no different.  The antequated business model and rules were in reality just collusion and handshake agreements meant to give all of the leverage to the guys that own the teams.  As we speak the NHL is in the midst of attempting to do the same to the NHL Players Association, by means of threatening to cancel another entire season.  If the players have the resolve, and the right people remain motivated, the current NHL owners could be, as so eloquently stated by Ronald Reagan, “left for the ash-heap of history”

First reaction to this sentence might be skeptical, and rightly so.  It has become somewhat customary in daily life to just accept that change seldom if ever happens, especially in the case of large business.  The NHL has taken the present stance of what seems like a Tea Party line, which is that they will not be held hostage by organized labor of any form.  The owners have been very slow to react to a rather distinct message by the players association that bending over six years ago was a one time deal.  The Players Association went even further to say that the games could be played under terms of the current agreement as long as progress would be made towards a new one.  Clever move, placing the cancellations squarely on the shoulders of the owners, using the “but we told them we would play” line.

If the players were smart, they would sit tight as long as possible.  Give nothing back.  Make these people sweat.  It sounds ridiculous, but the guys that own the teams need the players a whole lot more than the other way around.  Hold out long enough, and just maybe a person that the NHL would consider their personal version of the Red Skull may be able to get things together to make them irrelevant.  Ladies and Gentleman, please welcome a slightly battered, but never-the-less wealthy and now with a whole lot more free time Jim Balsillie.

While you laugh off the shock of what I suggest, consider the following facts.  Balsillie could find access to a building as well as some wealthy individuals in other areas, which could in turn help build a WHA like league.  Balsillie and said suitors would have monumental advantages over the founders of the WHA, such as access to players that are currently being told they can’t play under current contracts, and the fact that sports has changed in ways that make this kind of venture substantially easier.  In 1970, people were fans of teams, and in turn they had an interest in players that may be on those teams.  In 2012, the emblem on the front of the jersey does much less for fantasy scores and attendance values than the name on the back.  Imagine Sidney Crosby playing in Quebec or Hamilton, and the throngs of people that would line the buildings.

The NHL has vastly underestimated the value players have on the game today, above even the teams that they play on.  The players truly are what generate attendance, even when the teams are on the cusp of awful.  This phenomenon is not limited to the NHL, the NFL and MLB see this as well.  If you’re looking for somebody to blame, talk to the fantasy sports department.  Teams mean very little to the success of sports in today’s world.  Fantasy sports have actually driven that divide from the fan-team relationship to almost non-existent.  This is the reason on Sunday afternoon in the United States, people will watch not only the team they follow play, but every game that is televised.  From a business perspective it is genious.

It seems highly implausible that any one person or group would go out of their way to destroy the National Hockey League, and if I were to bet I would suggest that it won’t happen.  But if the threat of it were to emerge, perhaps the players would find themselves on some solid ground with leverage.  40 years ago a Philadelphia court ruled that the reserve clause the NHL used to protect drafted players (and prevent them from any financial gain) was unlawful, which paved the way for the WHA to sign NHL players to contracts that were more in line with industry dollars.  This group is more responsible that any for the demise of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, and Chicago Blackhawks, as the owners of these groups refused to accept the times changing.  I for one would sleep better at night if some group came together and collectively ended the evil-empire like grip that the NHL owners have on their product, if it meant a return to a quality hockey product without a threat of work stoppages each time the group in charge want a raise.


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