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.