Former NHL coach and current broadcaster and bon vivant Harry Neale had one of the greatest lines in hockey history. Commenting on his 1981-82 Vancouver Canucks, Neale quipped, “Last season we couldn’t win at home. This season we can’t win on the road. My failure as a coach is I can’t think of anywhere else to play.”
That kind of sums up the current state of negotiations between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association, doesn’t it? They tried very public negotiations where the media would stake out their offices and chronicle them flinging mud at each other. Then they tried to meet in double-secret locations and keep their mouths shut.
Neither of those worked, so now they’re going to try not talking at all. At least that’s what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would like to see. Of course, this will have the “lock-them-in-a-room-and-feed-them-bread-and-water-until-they-reach-a-deal” contingent up in arms. But really, can not talking at this point be any less productive than what these two sides have produced already? Perhaps two weeks of reflection – which will also equate to two weeks of lost money for both sides – is exactly what they need. If neither side is going to bring anything new to the table, what’s the point of even going to the table in the first place?
What this proposed time-out by Bettman tells me is that the NHL is stronger than ever in its resolve to get the deal it thinks it needs moving forward. Not good news for the players, who missed their third paycheck this week. Bettman and the owners know that they can outlast the players if they remain united and resist the urge of getting a deal done just to save this season. The players will never get back the money they lose by being out. But the owners do have a chance to recoup their losses from this season with a favorable deal.
The reason why I say this is that by shutting things down for two weeks, the league is putting an awful lot into jeopardy. According to a source with a good knowledge of the NHL’s business workings, the league has a deal with its major sponsors that will pay it 100 percent of its money if the league plays a schedule of 61 or more games. If the schedule dips below 61 games, the league will receive only 75 percent of its sponsorship money. That percentage continues to decrease down to 50 percent if the league only plays a 41-game schedule.
So by pushing things back by two weeks, Bettman is putting millions of dollars of sponsorship money into jeopardy. Through Friday night, the league had already missed a total of 244 games, which works out to an average of about 16 games per team. That takes the schedule down to 66 games. Now, the league would jam a lot more games into whatever time remained and most teams would be playing three games in four nights on a fairly regular basis, so there’s still time to get it done.
But it pushes everything back. If Bettman’s two-week hiatus is observed, both sides would get back to the bargaining table by Dec. 1. Based on Steve Fehr’s assertion that the two sides could reach a deal in a couple of days “once the time is right” – which begs the question, wouldn’t now be a pretty good time? – let’s say it takes a week to get a deal. That takes us to Dec. 8 and a 10-day training camp takes us to Dec. 18. According to this year’s schedule, that takes us to Game No. 449, or about 30 games lost per team.
It’s not inconceivable that given a jam-packed schedule with the playoffs extending into late June that the league would still be able to have a 60-game schedule. But the league is taking a calculated gamble here, hoping that another two weeks and another missed paycheck on Nov. 30 will erode the resolve of the players.
That’s debatable. First of all, the league isn’t doing itself any favors when deputy commissioner Bill Daly comes out and says it’s clear to the league that the players have no interest in coming to an agreement. They have interest in coming to an agreement, just not one where they come out on the losing end and get embarrassed by their employer. Actually, it has been well-documented that the players very much want to strike an agreement, since they’ve already conceded defeat to the owners.
And another thing that undoubtedly strengthened the players’ resolve is the role the stars have played so far. In this dispute, both Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have been very vocal in their criticism of the league and even more intriguing, neither has backed down from his comments.
This, you have to understand, is a radical departure from the norm. For too long, the biggest stars in this league have stayed silent during times like this, allowing the foot soldiers to do all the talking. When teammate Ted Lindsay and a small group of players tried to start a union in the late 1950s, Gordie Howe stayed silent. And ever since then, stars from Wayne Gretzky to Mario Lemieux have basically kept their noses out of union affairs.
We know the owners are strong, and even if they’re not, all Bettman needs is eight of 30 teams supporting the lockout to keep it going. The players are going to have to be equally strong and aside from a few retired players who have no stake in this issue giving a dissenting view, there haven’t been any cracks yet.
Looks as though we’re in for a long one.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.