The ‘shut up and play’ argument against NHLPA cattle

Jim Devellano had a Mitt Romney problem last week, as correctly diagnosed by Bruce Arthur of the National Post (see, that's why he wins awards). The "47 Percent" and the "NHL Players As Cattle" declarations were both seen as ill-timed gaffes, but ones that were excused by some because of their inherent honesty.

Sure, uttering these things in the midst of a Presidential election, or in a labor standoff between owners and players, is embarrassing at best and completely counterproductive at worst. But those consistently supporting Obama will likely not vote for Mitt; and yes, NHL owners see their players as livestock that serve their purpose and then are eventually replaced in the field.

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That's the most uncomfortable truth for the NHLPA. They can go hire Donald Fehr, assemble in New York as a show of solidarity, prepare for a work stoppage, go to Europe en masse as symbol of that preparedness … and the whole thing still comes down to when the owners decide to end the lockout. (Hint: It will be when they get the deal they already know they'll settle for, and it's one the players will despise.)

And so for the pro-ownership sympathizers — the minority in this debate, for sure, at least at the moment — there's exasperation. First, that the players have the gall to believe the owners will crack when anyone who speaks out of turn gets a $250,000 fine or "loses draft picks," as Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula mentioned off-handedly.

Second, that they believe they're anything more than the cattle they've been portrayed to be.

Cult of Hockey's Peter Adler spelled out the owners' case better than most in a column today, pulling together some of their consistent arguments: Such as the last CBA's linkage to revenue not accounting for rising costs, and wondering what the NHL would look like if the current 57/43 split between the sides was reversed.


But most of all, he wants the NHL players to know their place. From Adler:

In all fairness, the players can't survive without their clubs' owners, whoever they might be, while the owners can hardly care less about today's crop of hockey stars because they know perfectly well there'll be new stars on the firmament tomorrow.

… Simply put: if the players want to share revenues with the league (and let's ignore percentages for now), they would have to invest in the league, first. If Donald Fehr says they have invested, through their labour, the answer is: that's what they've been paid for. They've been paid whatever they agreed to in their personal player contracts. Nobody forced them to sign these contracts. In fact, nobody forced them to make hockey their professional careers. If they wanted, they could have gone on with their education and become astronauts. Or whatever else that requires more knowledge than what you can get in a high school, especially a high school you had dreadful difficulty to graduate from in the first place.

In any case, it makes no sense to invoke antagonistic contradictions based on class struggle, and it makes no sense to try ambush tactics at various labour boards, either. There's a good reason why one side is called the employers and the other, employees. The sooner players learn this distinction, the happier they are going to be.

(As a side note: The entire "they chose this line of work" argument has always been deplorable to me, not only for its dehumanizing coldness but because it's apparently a one way street. Sure, Mikko Koivu could have been an astronaut, just as easily as Craig Leipold could have invested in a celestial flight company instead of the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild. No one forced his hand either, yet he's the one getting a bailout from his employees.)

The argument I'd make here is that the NHLPA and Fehr, from their first proposal on, have sought to redefine their "investment" in the NHL both in revenue percentage concessions and in a bigger role in revenue sharing with the large-market teams. Whether that's sufficient is up for debate, but the determination is there.


As for the rest of it … look, it's always going to be about the logo on the front rather than the name on the back. It's always going to be about how successful a team is rather than how flashy any individual players' stats are. That's the NHL.

So while many of us are sympathetic to the players' plight, deplore the owners for pushing another season back to the brink because of their own mismanagement and criticize the NHL for instituting a financial system whose flaws are now exposed … are the players just deluding themselves into believing they're going to win the waiting game?

Are they delusional to think the owners are going to crack? Or that they're anything but replaceable?