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Tough Love
NHL Season Mothballed

February 16th, 2005

“Now go to your room, and don't come out until I say so!”

Ever tried reasoning with a two or three year old?

You disagree on a course of action, you outline the two paths in which said toddler can travel, you make it crystal clear in simple language the consequences of both paths and then sit back and wait for logic to come to the surface.

And wait, and wait and well … wait.

The logic never comes.

The toddler chooses the path that results in a shut door, a stuffed animal taken away, the locking away of the Finding Nemo DVD for a month despite the fact that they could see this coming from a mile away.

Kind of reminds you of the NHL lockout these past several months, doesn't it?

Like a toddler, you can't blame the NHLPA for testing their boundaries, for assuming that the NHL (read parent) was bluffing and that the punishment wouldn't stick. Heck history is there to back up these beliefs. A decade or two of really bad parenting would leave any child the notion that mom and dad can't really mean it when they say there will be hell to pay if they listen to what they say.

Owners talk tough, act tough, and then cave. It's been the rule of past NHL labour negotiations and the blue print for the Bob Goodenow guided jaunt to success in the past dozen years.

Only problem for Bob now?

The parents (NHL) are wise to his antics, and they mean it this time. They've watched enough Doctor Phil to get a better grip on running their household, leaving Bob and his brethren with actual discipline for the first time in their young lives.

It's tough love time at NHLPA headquarters, and they just don't have a pocket map for this new path that they must travel.

Just like a household, National Hockey League owners pay the bills and if they show the gumption required they too can set the rules. If they hold their ground the toddler, or in this case the NHLPA will have to concede or pack their jammies and teddy bear and head out into the cold world on their own.

But enough about the parenting angle, the hockey dispute is colourful enough … it doesn't need a fetching metaphor to make it interesting.

From the middle of last summer until this very minute, the NHL Lockout has featured anything but the sobering look of a rather simple owner/worker model in need of economic change.

It's been conspiracies, and hidden agendas.

Greedy players that don't care about the sport they were blessed to play, and owners that have taken things so personally that they'd rather bust a union for a system they don't need then give up a dollar to players that they resent.

It's all been a giant boatload of horse manure. The really, really smelly stuff.

If rational minds were to cover this the truth of the matter is that there really doesn't have to be a villain in this, despite what cantankerous writers from the MSG Network, New York Time or Toronto Sun tell you on a daily basis.

Players, like professionals in any other industry on this shiny blue planet, or entitled to make as much money as they can. They can move their families to new cities, alter their careers, and better their lives in any way they see fit.

Similarly, men and women with heaping piles of capital are fully within their rights to actually make a return on their millions when they invest in a hockey franchise as they would if they left their money with a broker, or invested in any other business venture.

The only crimes committed in this process are the crimes of clouded judgment and perhaps the crime of underestimating the resolve of your opponent.

As a true capitalist, I have to admit that in this particular dispute I have tended to side somewhat with the NHL owner.

That's not to say that I blame the player for the mess this league is in, clearly a lack of forward thinking and discipline by many NHL owners have set the league on its path to financial ruin.

However, I do think it's the NHLPA's failure to see the warning signs that the league and its 30 chapters were serious this time, and in that they failed to strike a deal when there was something of a season to be saved – pushing to the brink on the premise of an owner collapse that clearly isn't in the cards.

Just look at the evidence that was plain to see, suggesting that the owners may just mean it this time.

  • A complete evaporation of TV rights
  • Two bankruptcies in a calendar year
  • Payroll giants like the New York Rangers shedding salary like speedos on a nude beach in preparation for a new world order
  • A $300 million war chest to get 30 teams through hard times
  • A slow in the rise of salaries over the past two seasons, showing owners may finally be clueing in to the dire straights of their businesses
  • The Bettman Veto that gave the commissioner the ability to thwart an early settlement push by as many as 22 of 30 owners
  • And the fact that 21 of the 30 ownership groups are actually new to the sport from the last time a CBA was pounded out – therefore past history is somewhat irrelevant.
The owners' stance was clearly built on a foundation of common sense, and not on union busting, or a malicious axe to grind. Just like that parent up above, if you take a hit in take home pay you tend to eat out less, patch your children's jeans instead of buying new, and alter your summer holiday plans from Disney World to camping in Pincher Creek.

Hoping for a cave in on the part of the billionaires is a great plan “A”, if you have a more realistic plan “B” to fall back on.

They didn't.

If Gary Bettman steps up to the podium in New York this morning and finally drives the wooden stake through the body of a NHL season that was actually dead and stiff with rigamortis over a month ago, nobody will be all that surprised.

But many of us will be sad.

Sad in that I personally don't believe the players are as staunchly against the idea of partnership and cost certainly as they let on in the media. Many of these players are close friends and business partners with community minded ownership groups across the league. They do trust their own owner, but have been convinced that the other 29 are the devil incarnate, and are therefore willing to follow each over the cliff.

Sometimes an all for one, and one for all mentality doesn't get you anything but a mass economic suicide despite how cozy the sound of a strong union and all that.

Like a toddler that means well but needs to make mistakes in order to learn the lessons of life, I guess it's time they head to their rooms. The fine print may be obvious to anyone that looks on, but true pain is often the best lesson learner in life.

Hopefully when that door swings open again the rest of the house around it hasn't burned to the ground.

Or a little time without watching Finding Nemo will be the least of their concerns.



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