All of the events today have made me terribly miss Jim Kelley, the late hockey writer of The Buffalo News, The Hockey News, and Sports Illustrated. The man was not afraid to take both sides of an issue to task without actually sounding like a chorus for one of them during the 2004 lockout, and his craft is sorely lacking this time around.
Today was a rather twilight zone kind of day for those following the LOCKOUT 2012 Full Coverage. First there was the unbridled optimism led on by the players and owners comments coming out of the meetings sans representation. The next step was plane crash style three alarm panic the second Donald Fehr suggested mediation to close the remaining gaps. This was immediately followed by one of the most bizarre events in the short history of this labor strife, the players sitting on a stage behind a podium with what looked to be an announcement of a new CBA. Then in teenage relationship style, the NHL texted Steve and Donald Fehr “ROTFL” with regard to the latest counter-proposal. Next, Gary Bettman stepped into a press conference to give theatrics to each of the seven steps of grief, after which all non involved parties that happen to be on twitter found it appropriate to lay out unabashed criticism of their imaginary opposition. There were made up sources of information, there were threats of boycott, there was decertification talk, there was personal insults, it was like the O’Reilly Factor meets professional sports. My wife watches The Young and the Restless on CBS daytime and it has nothing on the show put on by the NHL last night.
Given the days events as summarized above, it is understandable that some may have strong feelings about some of the parties involved. The level of emotion some are displaying is actually getting a bit laughable. This is becoming the OJ Simpson trial, just without the murders. It took Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman to make the Watergate Hotel scandal interesting. This is a standard labor negotiation, nothing more, nothing less. Those of us that have had the good fortune to live through one of these should understand this. Those that have not, rest assured, this will get resolved. The only major difference between what is occurring now in professional hockey and normal contract negotiations is the actions of the NHL itself. Most companies that have collectively bargained labor could not hope to afford to shut their places of business down for any length of time in order to achieve better results in a contract.
This lockout has resulted in some troubling accusations which are worth mention. First of these facts is who is getting paid during this lockout. As mentioned in the paragraph above, most companies would never cease business while negotiating a new contract (typically most pray a strike doesn’t occur). The reason the NHL can afford to do such a thing is multifaceted, but think of the NHL as whole like a Wal Mart. Some income is required to be shared across the board between all clubs. These items are usually found in contracts which are negotiated by the NHL, and benefit all thirty teams. These include television contracts, advertising contracts, merchandising rights, licensing fees, etc…. The NHL, which could not possibly have anticipated closing down all operations back in September (or back when these contracts were written), made sure that written into such contracts were stipulations that required the NHL pay back monetary fees at the end of the contract for services not performed during the contract. This is kind of the opposite of deferred compensation, as the money gets paid up front, then later at the end of the contract the service provider would then not get paid. The NBC television contract for example is currently being paid to all thirty teams across the NHL, all $200 million. This would result in a net gain of a little more than $6.5 million per club. While not made public, it is widely believed that the exclusive rights contract with Molson signed last year is similar in nature.
Take this income into account, consider that there is currently $70 million dollars in payroll not going out, ice is no longer being maintained in the facilities, and what you have is unpaid expenditures which now offset income losses. In effect, the NHL has probably made the same, if not more money in the period of this lockout than they would have should they have played the games while continuing to negotiate. At it’s current rate, this is going to be a record profit year for the Phoenix Coyotes, all without ever playing a game.
Coming out of the meeting from a couple of players is another interesting note; that some of them had been warned by owners that if Union leadership was brought back into the negotiations, the deal was off. Not coincidentally, what happened was exactly that. Reporters that have been rather sympathetic to the NHL side were citing unnamed player sources that are upset with NHLPA leadership. This all amounts to some masterful negotiating by the NHL, looking to divide the individual members of the union, turning the clock back to 2004 when solidarity would not have been a good word to describe the NHLPA. Thus far it does not appear the association has bitten. The exasperated looks that Gary Bettman and Bill Daly were sporting were priceless. The manufactured anger and hostility was Broadway at its best.
If any of the hostility last night was real, it was the result of something the players could only have hoped for when bringing Donald Fehr in as executive director on the NHLPA, adequate representation. The players had spent so much time in the past fighting amongst themselves that they rarely paid any mind to the NHL robbing them. With their current level of solidarity, that should never be an issue again.