NHL lockout over: Blame game just getting started

Jonathon Gatehouse explains why the end of the lockout is hardly a cause for celebration

Even by the diminished standards of sequels, The Lockout 3 was lacking.

The plot was far too familiar. The jeopardy forced. The actors simply going through the motions.

So while it’s a relief that the NHL and its Players’ Association have finally come to their senses, resolving a labour dispute that never had to happen after 113 days, it’s hardly cause for celebration. The tentative deal, struck in the wee hours of Jan. 6, isn’t that much different than the one the league and Commissioner Gary Bettman haughtily walked away from a month ago. Nor, is it greatly changed from the solution the two sides might have drawn up over beers at the cottage last summer: A 50/50 split of revenues—just like the NBA and NFL have. A 10-year term, with both sides enjoying an opt-out provision after eight years. (The deal that expired on Sept. 15 ran for seven.) A salary cap of $64.3 million for the 2013-14 season, and a floor at $44.3 million (down from this year’s projected $70 million/$54 million ceiling and floor under the old agreement.) The players get $300 million of “make whole” money to help ease the transition to the lower revenue split. Bettman gets a 7-year limit on free-agent contracts—eight if the player resigns with his current team—and limits on how much compensation can vary from year-to-year as part of his efforts to stop his owners from signing stars to ridiculously lengthy contracts for stupid money. (Although none of that will stop GMs from making disasterously bad decisions. Just ask any Montreal fan about Scott Gomez.) Rich club to poor club revenue sharing increases to $200 million a season—or five Phoenix Coyotes if you rather—with the promise of more as the bottom line improves.

But none of this is earth-shattering, or even vaguely transformative. All of it, incremental gains and losses to the existing system. The kind of “tweaks” Bettman talked up over the last season or two before he shuttered the league yet again last Sept. 15.

So who’s to blame? You can argue it’s the Commissioner, but really he was just doing his job as the front man for the owners’ baser instincts. Is it Don Fehr, looking to tack on a career-ending victory over the NHL’s small fry to his real legacy—a two-decade beatdown of the infinitely richer and more powerful men who control Major League Baseball? Hardly. He was just doing what the players wanted.

Nope, it’s the fault of the media and the fans. Particularly those of us here in Canada, which provides the NHL with one-third of its revenue, half its players, and most of its passion. As the old saw goes, those who do not learn from history and doomed to repeat it. Again and again.

As I outlined in my book, the great lesson the NHL and its players learned from the 103-day lockout in 1994/95, and the debacle that was the lost 2004-05 season, was that the market wouldn’t punish them. Sure, there was the odd team that took a short-term drop at the gate, but on both occasions, fan anger dissipated like morning fog on a sunny day. The media transitioned effortlessly from outraged columns and phoney phooey-on-hockey sentiment to season previews and training camp news. And the business bounced back stronger than ever.

And so it will be this time. The NHL and the NHLPA will indulge in the hockey equivalent of morning-after flowers, maybe a “Thank-You Fans” message etched onto centre ice, and some new charitable endeavours. The antsy sponsors will finally get to air those feel-good commercials they’ve had sitting in the can since last summer. And by the start of the playoffs, all this unpleasantness will have been forgotten.

The thing is that without a real, sustained fan backlash—like the one baseball owners and players experienced after the cancellation of the 1994 World Series—there is nothing to stop it happening again when this CBA expires after the 2019-20 season, or should it run its full course, 2021-22.

Of course, even that’s not an original thought. Many others wrote the same thing in early 1995, and then again a decade later.

Pro-hockey’s fans have become the league’s enablers. Just like the filmgoers who flock to theatres to watch the latest iteration of a once mildly funny comedy, or clapped-out superhero franchise.

That’s unlikely to change. But it’s something to keep in mind when you find yourself complaining about The Lockout 4.




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NHL lockout over: Blame game just getting started

  1. Boycott. I for one will not be going to any games this year let alone buying any merchandise.

  2. I agree with this article….Bettman responded to a question at the start of this debaucle if hhe was worried about a fan back lash…he said that the NHL had the best fans in the worldworld….which translates to we are all sheep…I honestly hope thete is a response from the fans and a dramatic drop in attendence…or is this just a pipe dream.

  3. At the very least, those and will go to the games should BOO Loudly at every arena

  4. Send your article back to your editor – “eight if the player resigns with his current team” – a player cannot resign with his team, he resigns from his team or he re-signs with his team – the two words are spelled differently and have completely different and opposite meanings.

    Lately I’ve been seeing this error far too frequently with people who have journalistic backgrounds for me not to point it out.

  5. The NHL lockout has finally been resolved. The stupidity on both sides, from a fan’s stand point, was nauseating – Millionaires at odds with billionaires.
    Unlike most NHL players making seven digit incomes annually, my income is five. It took about 20 years to earn a million dollars, as it would for most average fans. Most players pass that point partway into the second year of a rookie contract. I buy tickets to 8 games per year. That’s all I can afford – to pay both the players and the owners.
    As your customer I’d like to point out to the owners that no player is worth $60 million, yet multi-year contracts are signed regularly paying such amounts. Then you want taxpayers’ subsidies in virtually every market. This again is MY money you want. Stop it! Run your own damn business with the money you earn from a product that is dependable and entertaining.
    To the players, understand your jobs are to entertain the fans. You are supposed to be working for your organization to attract the fan to want to spend my money on games and souvenirs. Appreciate what you have and behave asambassadors for your league.
    We fans should protest our discontent to the owners and the players. What if no one cheered or clapped for the pre-game skate and introductions at very game in the league for a week? A full house and silence would speak volumes from the fans. Sit on your hands fans.

  6. Shame … I was kinda looking forward seeing Jeremy Jacobs lining up
    to face off against Larry Tannenbaum at centre ice. Wouldn’t draw many
    fans but I bet the corporate tax break boxes would do boffo.

  7. Thank goodness Fehr got better pension benefits for the players . Sure that will benefit the third of fourth liners who will likely be replaced by AHL players,rookies and guys from Europe next year. When they are riding the buses in the minors they can thank Donnie for putting them there.

  8. Boycott. Might check in again next season……..we’ll see.

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