Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL’s owners say they want to play 82 games. They say they care about the fans. They say they just want hockey.
The latest twist of the lockout circus, which is now at 41 days and counting, is that the NHL will withdraw its 50/50 offer to the NHLPA with Thursday’s deadline to save an 82-game season in the rear view mirror.
(Thursday’s news came on the heels after it was revealed Tuesday that the NHL allowed team executives a 48-hour window to answer questions from players about its latest proposal – and didn’t even let the players union know.)
Not that this was unexpected – the offer did include the disclaimer that its intention was to save a full season – and it’s not like the NHL will never consider a 50/50 offer again, but it’s a stupid “high-and-mighty” approach on the NHL’s part. Even with a full 82-game schedule all but out the window, the NHL will continue to play hardball. It’s like they are in fifth grade.
“We have to re-think where we are, and what type of season we’re looking at,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com, “and we have to formulate and construct a proposal that makes sense for the reality of where we are.”
This take-it-or-leave-it approach by the league is childish. Their tactics for the last six weeks have been an embarrassment to the game of hockey. Sure, the players union, headed by executive director Donald Fehr, has contributed to this lockout dragging out as long as it has. But the owners are receiving most of the blame and, I have to say, it’s well-deserved.
Seven years after the previous lockout, the NHL is attempting to break the union once again. But why? What’s the point? Whenever the lockout ends, the NHL will have won its battle. If either side blinks first, it’s probably going to be the players – just like they did in 2005 when they ultimately agreed to a salary cap – though that won’t happen anytime soon.
One will ask: “Then why don’t the players – who already have enough money! – just take the NHL’s offer and get back on the ice?”
My response is that of devil’s advocate: Why are the owners trying to win 100 percent of the battle when, in the end, they will likely win 90 percent of it anyway?
Earlier in the lockout, Bettman whined about the NHLPA’s unwillingness to negotiate – which is now a hypocritical complaint. Bettman is now the shortsighted one who is only willing to negotiate off of the NHL’s latest offer – an offer that Bettman said was the best the league could do. Last week it took him a grand total of 30 minutes to reject the NHLPA’s three proposals.
The NHLPA is willing, waiting, wanting to negotiate. The NHL, the ones who set the October 25th deadline to save an 82-game season and put pressure on Fehr, is not.
“We said to them that we are prepared to meet if you want to discuss our offer, or you want to make a new offer,” Bettman said Wednesday. “They have no inclination on doing either, and so there really was no point in meeting at this point.”
As much as Bettman is focused on just negotiating off of their offer, the two sides appear to be closer than the commissioner seems to believe.
“It takes two to negotiate,” Fehr told ESPN.com. “They seem to be really good at imposing deadlines and issuing ultimatums and having lockouts. It seems to be something they’re well-practiced at.”
The next cancellation of games, expected to be announced Friday, is going to be a formidable one. The Winter Classic, the league’s premier event, and All-Star Game are in danger of being axed in the near future. It’s about to get real, if it hasn’t already.
When it comes to cancelling these marquee events (okay, the All-Star Game isn’t a marquee event), this is when the NHL’s true feelings about playing games in 2012-13 will emerge. Cancelling the Winter Classic – Bettman has said a decision will need to be made “very soon” – would be a sign that the league is more concerned about winning a PR war.
There is too much for the NHL to lose here. There is no excuse for a lockout. Maybe there was in 2004-05, but not now. Not only are they on the verge of losing games permanently, but they will lose momentum they’ve built up in recent years. They could also lose fans for good, as some in various cities have already (or vowed to) cancelled their season tickets. Who can blame them?
Two lost seasons in an eight-year span would be devastating to the league. A part of me hopes the league recognizes that, but it could be wishful thinking. Why? Because Bettman and the NHL don’t really care about the games or its fans. All they care about is money and winning a silly PR battle.
Does the union share some of the blame? Absolutely. But they are the ones giving up money (again, like 2005), and they have shown they are prepared to do so in their offers. If they want to get back on the ice, they don’t have a choice – they will have to take less.
The onus ultimately falls on the league and its owners, though. They are the ones that locked out the players. They are the ones holding the world’s greatest hockey league hostage, as Ryan Miller put it.
Hockey fans have had enough of the gamesmanship and the greed and the grudges – not just from the owners, but both sides. As NFL observers have said in the past, it’s time for the NHL and its players to protect its shield. It’s time to check egos at the door, cut the bullshit and get a deal done.
The longer it takes to do this, the bigger an embarrassment, the bigger a black eye this circus will become for the NHL.