CAMBRIDGE There are a few different things that the NHL owners have always preyed on while handing out work stoppages like Halloween candy under the leadership of Commissioner Gary Bettman.
Theyve always been able to break the backs of the players association at a critical juncture of the negotiations, and then take advantage of an NHLPA that couldnt remain unified. Theyve always been able to count on the hockey diehards forgiving, forgetting and returning as ticket-buying consumers no matter how much the NHL plays the role of the drunken, abusive spouse.
In the end the NHL has also always taken full advantage of the individual hockey players, and their deep-rooted concern for the health and well-being of the league that they love. That aforementioned concern about damaging the game was front-and-center while chatting with the players after their second lockout practice at Harvards Bright Hockey Center on Tuesday afternoon.
We hoped it wouldnt be as confrontational as the last time around, but obviously that wasnt the same sentiment on the other side, said Andrew Ference. Were getting into this rut where were almost a joke. Every few years weve got to revisit the same thing. One year its explained one way, and one year its explained another way.
The bottom line is were missing hockey games with these lockouts, and its just the cycle of nonsense where you have to say enough is enough. Lets have some long term stability in the sport. If the game is gaining in popularity then we dont have to halt it and do this to ourselves again.
The NHL wants a rollback or escrow to scale back as much as 20 percent from the more than 1 billion with a b contracts that the fiscally strapped owners agreed to this summer. They dont seem to have much concern over anything beyond a major reduction in player payroll costs while the players are looking for a more permanent solution that will avoid another work stoppage when this new CBA is finished.
Meanwhile the players are wondering when the two sides will begin substantial talks again, and left to wonder if theyre once again about to play a part in putting a permanent black mark on the NHL.
Our proposal addresses some of these teams at the bottom of the hockey markets, said Ference. The other one from the NHL just doesnt. Besides the percentage of hockey related revenue and the definition of it, thats a huge issue. We just dont want to get back into the same thing four or five years ago. A lockout hurts us, it hurts the fans and it hurts a lot of things.
At least as players we can find other places to play and guys are going overseas . . . we have options. At the end of the day we care about the league doing well and continuing on the path of whats been some very successful years. The term partnership was thrown a lot during the last lockout, and thrown around pretty loosely. Youre building something together. Its not just marketing that builds the game. Its the players and its the hard work, and its the marketing. To have it interrupted again and again and again kills the momentum. It all comes back to the same thing: putting an end to all this.
The players are also wildly cognizant of the uphill climb out of the 2004-05 lockout after missing an entire season of hockey the first major professional sport to miss an entire year due to labor strife and how quickly the NHLs momentum can be slowed or even worse, stalled.
The hockey calendar is only just now creeping into what would have been the first few days of training camp. Things will get a lot more real for both sides when regular season games start getting cancelled starting October 11, and the negative reaction from loyal, ardent hockey fans should be unmerciful and angry for all those involved.
Every time theres a work stoppage and theres no media coverage out there, then people lose interest in the game, said Seidenberg. Hockey isnt a sport like football or baseball where a large group of people live for it. We need the coverage to be out there to keep it going and to keep the game popular.
Far be it for this humble hockey writer to extol the virtues of the hockey media helping to market the NHL in its time of need, but Seidenbergs point is very well-taken. Despite its stunning growth over the last five years, the NHL is still the fourth most popular pro sport among the four major leagues. The NBA recovered from their work stoppage last season, but they dont have the checkered past of Bettman and the NHL when it comes to labor issues.
Its also a much shorter drop for the NHL to plummet into oblivion if Bettman and the NHLPA both lose this game of labor chicken that has the players so concerned about the state of their game.