OK, so, look. It's September 14, and I have posted to this blog twice since July 5. This is not to make one of those old-school blog apologies-for-lack-of-posts; it's to say that it happened because I've been bitterly avoiding all things hockey as this lockout bullshit has been looming. I haven't even played Blades of Steel all summer. I'm trying to get into football, but I just can't care as much. It doesn't work. So, fuck it, let's talk about this impending lockout.
A lot of writeups I'm seeing say things like "both sides are refusing to compromise" and "oh, it's just a bunch of millionaires fighting over money, therefore it is stupid." Yes, technically, that is the situation. But stating it like that strongly implies equal blame, which is not appropriate at all.
WELCOME TO YOUR HISTORY LESSON. SIT A SPELL. YOU MIGHT LEARN SOMETHING.
In 1994, immediately after a major metropolitan market (no prize for guessing which) won the Cup for the first time in a long time, playing a conference final that was probably one of the greatest playoff series in NHL history, the NHL entered its second-ever work stoppage (the first was a 10-day strike by the NHLPA; no games were lost). Commissioner Gary Bettman, then on the job for just over a year, wanted to institute a salary cap, which the players obviously opposed. After playing 1993-94 without a collective bargaining agreement, Bettman led the NHL to it's first game-cancelling work stoppage, a lockout of the players that lasted for half of the regular season.
Eventually, the big-market teams (including the Rangers) gave up on the salary cap idea, rightly feeling like not having any hockey at all was starting to be bad for business, and a collective bargaining agreement was signed in time for the 1995 season to start and for the New Jersey Devils to win their first half of a Stanley Cup. The CBA was set to last for a minimum of 6 years, and would be the agreement each season after that until either party chose to terminate it, which the NHL (again, not the NHLPA) did after 4 more seasons, still under Bettman, in 2004.
Again, the NHL was looking for a hard salary cap, and again, Commissioner Gary Bettman, now on the job for just over a decade, led the NHL to a game-cancelling work-stoppage, a lockout of the players. This time, the NHL was much bolder, rejecting an early offer by the NHLPA to take an overall 24% salary cut and make other concessions in order to avoid the cap. But the NHL stood firm in its resolve, and the lockout dragged on, until in February, Gary Bettman admitted the cancellation of the entire season, making 2004-05 the second year the Stanley Cup would not be awarded. The other was 1918-19, due to the Spanish flu epidemic.
The negotiations this time around were pretty simple: the NHL didn't budge, and the players caved on basically every issue, because the alternative seemed to be no longer playing NHL hockey. The NHL even threatened to use replacement players for 2005-06, filing an official charge against an NHLPA policy against scabs. By the time a new CBA was agreed upon, the NHL had their hard salary cap, and the players still took the overall 24% salary cut.
When the deal was finally announced, in July, Ron MacLean said, "A lot of people say that in this type of situation, nobody wins. But that's never true... It's about control and the owners got what they wanted: control." Bobby Hull said of the players, "I'm not so sure they got proper guidance from the guy running the Players' Association... You can't fight fire with fire when the flame on the other side is a heck of a lot hotter and a heck of a lot bigger." Don Cherry just said "No doubt who won this contest."
Meanwhile, the players' excitement over returning to the game was... tepid. The most positive reactions I could find were from Craig Conroy ("When you really sit down and look at it, the nuts and bolts, it's not as bad as we thought") and Mike Fisher ("It's the best deal we're going to get now"). Sean Burke said of the deal, "I just think we've been worn down to the point where at this stage, the deal would have to be incredibly bad for the guys not to vote it in." Jeremy Roenick went a step farther: "To be totally honest, I really don't care what the deal is anymore. All I care about is getting the game back on the ice."
Gary Bettman said, "Let's drop the puck on a fresh start and a wonderful future for the National Hockey League."
See, the NHL fully had the NHLPA by the short ones (balls). They showed that they were willing to cancel hockey indefinitely to get the deal they wanted. What could the NHLPA do?
Understand: I fully support the salary cap. I think it is necessary to make a sport reasonably competitive, and I reject the notion that a league should simply let its teams operate under the free market and see what happens. A league's job is to level the playing field so that individual games are entertaining. I've written a lot here about my dislike of the NHL's march toward parity because it alters the game itself. I support rules that make team construction level - that's the only way we can have a reasonably competitive product.
I didn't tell you this story to complain about the cap. I told you this story to complain about how we got it. Yes, I think the NHL is better off now than it was in the Devils-led dark ages from 1995 through 2004. But we see that we got here thanks to an uncompromisingly ideological league whose commissioner has no qualms about indefinitely suspending it if he thinks the ends justify it.
Anyway, your history lesson is over now. We'll move on to today in a bit, but go ahead and take a 5-minute water break. Leave your notebooks out.
Good. So. The CBA signed in 2005 was set to expire in 2011, with the NHLPA granted the right to extend it for one whole year if they wanted to. Once again, despite the huge hits they took in negotiating it, the NHLPA chose to continue playing under the it. And once again, immediately following a major metropolitan market (no prize for guessing which) winning its first Stanley Cup ever, the CBA is expiring, and no new one is in place.
Despite record profits for the NHL, Bettman, now on the job for just shy of two decades, once again came to the table asking for a 24% cut in overall player salaries - from 57% of overall hockey-related revenue to 43%. And to show that he knows just how extreme this proposal is, Bettman threatened a lockout as early as a month ago, as if to say "remember what happened last time?"
In 2004, the NHL felt that the league was badly in need of a salary cap, to make things more fair. Whether or not you agree, you can at least see that the NHL was trying to fix something. This time, Gary Bettman has given us a surprisingly candid reason for these labor talks: "The fact is, we believe that 57 percent of [hockey-related revenue] is too much. Even a brief lockout will cost more in terms of lost salary and wages than what we're proposing to do to make a deal that we think we need to make."
"If we lock you out, it will cost you even more than we're trying to take away from you"? That is a threat. If you understand nothing else about this off-season, understand this: the lockout is entirely a tool used by the league to bully the players into giving them what they want. The NHLPA has offered to play another season under the current CBA, exactly as it stands - the one the NHL bullied the PA into just 7 years ago - while negotiations continue. The NHL rejected this offer. Why? Because a lockout has been part of their negotiation tactics all along.
Which brings us to today's phrase of the day: argument to moderation. Argument to moderation, or the grey fallacy, is the logical fallacy whereby if there are two perspectives on an issue, we are inclined to believe that the "true" answer lies somewhere between them, in some kind of compromise. But that is just not always the case. If I propose that we murder your parents, and you propose that we do not, then we are not equally to blame for the disagreement, and the correct solution is not to murder exactly one of your parents.
You see this all the time in political media. Some group claims that the President of the United States is going to round up senior citizens and put them to death if they're old or weak enough, someone other group states that this is obviously not the case, and the media, in an attempt to remain "unbiased," gives equal air time to a person from each group, refusing to weigh in either way. Sometimes it's okay to show some "bias" toward the reasonable thing.
So forgive me if I'm sick of reading coverage about how Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman are both millionaires and shouldn't be fighting like this over money, while Bettman continues to collect his million-dollar salary and Fehr won't see a dime until a new CBA is in place. Forgive me if I think "the players should stop whining over money because they're so rich" is a juvenile, simplistic, uninformed reaction. Yes, technically, either the NHLPA or the NHL could just accept the other's terms and start the season, but that doesn't mean they're both to blame for the problem.
Tomorrow night at midnight, the 95-year-old National Hockey League will enter its third lockout, and the third lockout of Gary Bettman's 19-year tenure as league commissioner. Fans will be understandably hurt and bitter about it. Many will depart. The league will suffer a hit in popularity. We pathetic die-hard fans will watch college hockey for a few months and then return no matter what, and casual fans will give up and go watch football, possibly forever. None of this is news.
Let's just all make sure we know who's at fault here. Blaming both sides for a conflict that one of them is entirely responsible for creating and maintaining is irresponsible.
Oh. And if I were hired to run a 75-year-old business, and within a year I'd shut down the business entirely for the first time ever, and then within a couple of decades I'd shut it down two more times, there's a pretty good chance I'd be fired.