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You Could See This Coming A Mile Away
NHL Season Mothballed
RICK CHARLTON February
When they said it would be Armageddon, the end of the world as we knew it, they weren't kidding.
It's a sad commentary on this whole mess that the events leading to where we are now, the brink of canceling a full NHL season, were entirely predictable years ago.
In fact, many of us who write down our guesses for fun had heaps of money on at least a half season lost many years in advance of the event actually arriving, not through any particular brilliance on our part, but simply via a cool, dispassionate appraisal of the two opponents.
More particularly, a cool appraisal of one man, Bob Goodenow.
During the 1994-95 CBA dispute, Glen Sather complained Goodenow had only one tactic as an agent and as a labour negotiator - "delay, delay, delay." Force the other guy to negotiate with himself, put the pressure of "time" on his brain, wait him out until he cracked. That's it. That's all you need to know about Goodenow.
Frankly, that predictability will prove, probably today, to be a fatal weakness in Goodenow's armour, the reason owners were so well prepared for this dispute, the explanation for their tactics to date.
This space has always blamed owners entirely for the current economic distress they're in, the weight of their combined decisions of the last ten years finally becoming entrenched in collectively bargained accelerators to the point where there was no turning back, only a relentless march forward.
Should we blame players just because they stood around letting bags of money hit them in the head? I won't. It's fruitless.
Everything the players have was handed to them by the idiocy of owners.
Players didn't earn it by any particular guile. The only tactic you've really seen through the years is "delay, delay, delay". . . . and they had the right to that tactic just as any of us have the right to not sign a deal we consider unfair.
But pulling a win out of the last CBA, which appeared slanted in the NHL's favour initially, doesn't make them particularly smart.
The truth is owners made only one major mistake in 1994-95 - they identified players as the enemy when in fact the real enemy was themselves. That simple principle was their undoing in the last 10 years.
You can see the truth in that statement in the very tactics owners are pursuing this time, the near maniacal frenzy to link salaries to revenues which would effectively "idiot-proof" the system.
Conversely, the value of having "idiots" running loose is not lost on the NHLPA given their near maniacal frenzy to reject anything to do with linking revenues to salaries.
Oh yes, it's all about the idiots. They've been the prize.
Ken Dryden, the sometimes Great Thinker in hockey, said it best about a month ago when he opined, paraphrased, that "owners came to realize there isn't any great prestige in owning a sports franchise. There's only great prestige in owning a championship team. That is why they can't control themselves. That is the difference between sports and a normal business."
For the NHLPA, however, being predictable will prove to be as deadly in the boardroom as it is on the battlefield and it should be readily apparent at this late date, with the NHLPA leadership finally caving on the issue of a salary cap, that there is no Plan B for them, that their entire strategy was built around "delay, delay, delay" until owners cracked like owners always crack.
But owners appeared to be well aware of their fatal flaws and had years to prepare, from their $300 million lockout fund to giving Bettman a 75% veto, ensuring they couldn't be fragmented. . . . . . . . and years to consider if they had the motivation to carry through.
In the end, it's become quite obvious Goodenow and the union leadership had not articulated to the NHLPA membership in any way shape or form any strategy or benefit whatsoever in enduring a cancelled season . . . . or two . . . . or three.
There isn't a single player or player rep or player on the executive committee who could tell you how players as a group will be better off two years from now when compared to the owners last offer. They've done no cost benefit comparison.
"What's the end game? I wish I knew," said Bill Guerin of Dallas, a member of the NHLPA executive committee, the group negotiating this deal.
Well thank you for that bulletin. That's probably a great comfort to the hundreds who have followed you blindly to the edge of the precipice. What if "delay, delay, delay" doesn't work? Did anyone bother to ask? It doesn't sound like it.
When the NHLPA finally agreed in the last few hours it would consider a cap in exchange for linkage, the membership was left scratching their heads.
"If that's where we were going, I wonder why now," wondered Buffalo's Jay McKee, likely speaking for a lot of his brethren, those holding the bag on more than a billion dollars in lost wages.
''If it could have been done two years ago it could have been a lot more convenient for everyone,'' understated the typically plaid Wade Redden of Ottawa.
''We probably could've gotten this thing done in the summertime,'' said Chicago's Matthew Barnaby. ''Am I mad? No. I want to get back to work. But at the same time, I'm just a little disappointed that it went this far to play poker and to have someone call your bluff.''
Marvin Miller, the great union leader of major league baseball, established early that players in any sport needed to count on only one thing, that owners will inevitably lie about the true state of their financial distress. In lying, owners will always lack the fibre to carry through on a threat to cancel a season. They'll always cave, reasoned Miller, and he was right 100% of the time and his union members made great strides out of the dark ages because of it.
Indeed, it's a rare instance when owners aren't lying about their financial picture, usually whining about how hard it is to stay in business, etc, etc, yada, yada, yada.
Out of habit, you come to expect it. Out of habit, you dismiss it as a lie.
But the clues were out early that NHL owners might actually be telling the truth which means it would be a rare instance where the threat to cancel a season might actually be real. A threat is no threat unless you intend to follow through. Will they do it? While both sides appear to be searching for compromise at the moment, it's apparent the NHL has a bottom line it won't cross.
They will cancel the season.
Failing to recognize earlier the increased probability of owners actually canceling a season will be the NHLPA's ultimate disaster, its most serious miscalculation.
The early sign came from the NHL's insistence of tying revenues to expenses, not just a hard dollar cap but physically linking compensation to the performance of the business.
Logically, that type of system of business can only come where both parties collectively bargain what constitutes a dollar of revenue, where an independent audit process is established to verify the veracity of numbers to the satisfaction of both parties and where penalties exist to enforce it.
A reasonable person, reviewing what we see in the NFL and NBA where there is collectively bargained linkage between revenues and salaries, however porous, would see the implication immediately. It was as plain as day, visible to anyone.
The NHLPA, with one tactic at its disposal, ignored the warning in the proposal owners were putting forward, the warning they were prepared to be transparent which in turn was a warning they were likely telling the truth about their financial distress.
Players assert owners are hiding bags of money but have consistently, through this entire process, dodged the above, a system of business which would inevitably expose those bags of money and through a collectively bargained process, turn them over to players within a certain percentage range.
We can argue about how tough that negotiation might be - perhaps even a deal killer in itself - but when the door to the vault is swung open, you have to wonder why the bandits don't rush in. Is it because they already know there's nothing there?
They avoided Arthur Leavitt but offered to roll back their wages almost to the dollar that Leavitt said the NHL was losing. They rejected any offer to meet with Leavitt or discuss his numbers, a perfect opportunity to expose him as a liar, then grasped the Forbes Magazine financial examination sight unseen, pointing to it as evidence owners were lying. Players know what the numbers are.
"Trust but verify" was the mantra of Ronald Reagan in arms talks with the Soviet Union in the 1980's. Reagan knew you don't have to trust anyone if you have the means to independently verify their claims.
Trust has always been a bogus issue.
Instead of heeding the warning signs, the NHLPA predictably elected to "delay, delay, delay." They rejected the principle of "trust but verify," feeling owners would cave and they would get the brass ring anyway, ignoring the obvious signals of mounting motivation on the other side.
You can count on owners for one thing, that if they're lying, as they usually do, they'll cave, almost without regard to the obvious embarrassment the exposure of their lies should bring, following the money like a river down the easiest course. That's not ideology. That's just business and you can put everything else in disputes like this in orbit around it.
Owners are a constant. They'll make the business decision they need to make, even if it exposes them as the most obvious of frauds.
"What, are we going to make it up in volume?," queried Carolina owner Peter Karmanos. "Just keep losing money like that? You can't do that. We're, like, trapped. That's why we have 30 owners that are lined up and saying we're going to lose a whole season and maybe another one and maybe another one after that. Maybe only 5,000 people will show up at our games. But we won't be losing a billion dollars a season. Is there something about that concept I'm missing?"
A liar or something more dangerous, a desperate man?
And so we arrive at this point, where the people running the NHLPA, faced with making a rational business decision, are near to taking their members over the cliff in the name of ideology.
You can at least have a conversation about what lies ahead for owners. Even abandoning linkage between revenues and salaries yields the next highest price for players, a low value hard cap, something that will still allow for franchise values to soar in spite of lower revenues, with larger markets in particular, the folks you would think would have no interest in holding fast, becoming dramatic cash cows, driving their resale values even higher.
You may not agree with that argument but at least we could have a vigourous conversation about some kind of upside scenario.
What discussion could we possibly have about the upside of players sitting out one, two or three years? Its an abyss. Only blackness. There's nothing there.
Its an empty threat, one to be tested at the earliest opportunity.
Accepting the most draconian offer presented by owners to date probably looks rosy by comparison. It's a miscalculation of a phenomenal dimension. It's even a crummy decision if owners eventually cave two years from now.
Owners may respect the resolve of players but they're starting to express contempt for the collective intelligence of their opponents.
"The alternative is to get all 700 of them in a rink somewhere, put on their skates, click the back of their heels, wish they were in Kansas and Auntie Em shows up with a billion-dollar TV contract and 82 sold-out games," said Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. "Sure, why not?"
This collective will for suicide in the face of the obvious is not particularly unique, but it would be like calling The Charge Of The Light Brigade an act of gallantry instead of what it really was, a collossal waste.
The great newspaper wars in Seattle, Houston, Detroit, Calgary and earlier, the coal union and newspaper labour wars in Great Britain, saw the same thing, a fight for control of the business, the people putting up the capital feeling they should be the ones running the show while those doing the grunt work figuring they're the "product" and deserving of control and the lions share of the benefits.
Trevor Linden is offended by an autoworker comparison but then in the next breath tells us the NHLPA shouldn't be in the business of telling owners about the decisions they make. He wants the benefits of being a partner and none of the risk.
I've said this before in this space. Lousy, corrupt management causes strong unions . . . . which is where Goodenow replaced Alan Eagleson.
But the flip side of that is strong, domineering, unions will inevitably cause stronger management. The never-ending dance between owners and workers. Ideology versus the drive of capitalists.
The NHLPA has always been negotiating how much it was going to lose, not the degree to which it would win.
But they didn't have to come out of this a weaker entity than they were before they started.
If a season is cancelled, it will eventually tear this union to ribbons, just as similar miscalculations have done in similar situations in the past where ideology took precedence over flat business decisions, the acrimony within the NHLPA's ranks seething for a decade into the future at least.
All because their leader was too, too predictable.