The Winter of our Hockey Discontent

I’m not entirely sure where to go about the current hockey situation. It sucks.

Basically, a third of the season has been cancelled. The All-star game and Winter Classic are rumored to be cancelled within a week. December’s games probably aren’t too far behind that, so that teams can start booking other dates into their buildings. 

This now looks to be a long-term, perhaps all-season, thing.  Right now, to put it bluntly, this is primarily because the owners are taking a hard line and refusing to have meaningful negotiations. 

Unless you want to define “meaningful negotiations” as “take this offer or starve”, because however the NHL owners want to spin it, that’s their position right now. They’re willing to discuss which fonts to use to print out the CBA on paper and whether or not first lines in paragraphs are indented or flush, but that’s pretty much the only things they seem interested in offering any flexibility on. 

Up until now, I was more or less just ignoring things and not getting worked up over it because it was clear early on that these two sides weren’t going to find an agreement until it hurt, and it wasn’t going to hurt until some games were lost. I didn’t think it was going to be this entrenched. 

It seems as if the league is fully willing to give up an entire season and take all of the bad PR and fan unhappiness that implies to get the deal they want, or something very close to it. 

I look at the deal, and the differences between the league proposals and the player alternatives, and I can’t for the life of me see the logic of being willing to give up an entire season for that. If it was ONLY the financials of the deal as it’s being proposed, there’s a deal to be made here. The owners aren’t interested in making it. 

Why? Good question.

This is about the union. And/or Donald Fehr. 

Alan Eagleson. Bob Goodenow. Ted Saskin. Paul Kelly. Donald Fehr. 

Eagleson, who was convicted of fraud for his actions running the union. Goodenow ran the union for many years, but led it through the contract fight that cost the league an entire season — and lost, giving up a salary cap and most of the concessions the union had vowed not to give to the owners. He was replaced by Ted Saskin, who immediately walked into a fight among the union members over his hiring and ended up being removed. the union brought in his place Ted Kelly, who immediately walked into a fight over his leadership and was ultimately fired. 

See a trend here? A weak, factionalized, ineffective player’s union, one that repeatedly has been walked over by the owners In the 2004-2005 got a lot of concessions, but gave up the one key one the owners demanded, which was the salary cap.

And now, the owners are insisting the players give back a number of those concessions; the owners, of course, are keeping the cap, and in fact, insist on reducing it. 

The owners are staring at the fact of Donald Fehr, The first true leader the NHLPA has had, and behind him, it looks like the players have gotten beyond the internal factions and fighting and are united behind Fehr. 

This seems to have the owners scared to death. They have never had to deal with a strong union in the history of the NHL, and it looks to me like they want to keep it that way.

This lockout is about two things:

First, I think it has always been the league’s strategy that in 2004-2005 was to give up whatever they needed to give up to get the salary cap, and did, fully intending to claw back as much of it in the next CBA as they could. Given the history of an ineffective NHLPA, that’s not an unreasonable strategy, if you can buy into the idea that the owners are willing to plan things out ten years and then actually do it. (I do. the owners are many things. stupid is not one of them)

Second, the owners see the union coming together and buying into what Donald Fehr is telling them they need to do, and I think this is freaking out some of the key hardline/old-school owners. It looks to me like they want to freeze out the season until the union fractures and hope that the union does to Fehr what they did to Goodenow  and Kelly. If the union does ultimately split into factions again and one of them is able to oust Fehr, the chances that the NHLPA will ever get a qualified union leader to work with them again is basically zero, which puts the NHLPA back in the world of being a chaotic weak organization that can’t really protect it’s members. Which is exactly what the owners seem to want. 

If I’m correct, then this stoppage is going to go on for a long while, and the entire season is at risk. Only time will tell, but it’s hard to see this ending as long as the owner’s idea of negotiation is “take it or starve”.  

I’m wondering it the owners are miscalculating here. The way they’re handling this seems to be turning into a rallying point for the union to stick with Fehr, and he’s a savvy enough relationship building and politician that I don’t think it’s going to be easy for unhappy groups to organize a push to get him out; Fehr’s track record is such that it’s hard for anyone to say “we can do better with someone else” with a straight face, and that really hurts any hope the owners might have to force a regime change.

I think the owners may regret this; worse, when I speak of “the owners” I don’t speak of all 30 owners, but of the smaller group that controls the plan around the CBA negotiation, and that’s primarily driven by the folks from Philly and Boston, supported by the high-revenue teams like the Rangers, Leafs and Canadiens, because the high revenue teams don’t want to give up more of their share of revenues into the revenue sharing pool, they want the revenue taken back from the players to fill out the revenue gaps with the less successful teams. 

So at this point, I don’t see this as being about what percentage of hockey revenues go into which pile for what rich person, or when players get free agency or if a player gets a single room instead of sharing on the road. 

This is about the league seriously trying to prevent Donald Fehr from turning the union into a, well, a real union, and the owners see that as a huge long-term threat to their ability to dominate the team/player relationship — and a threat to their pocketbooks. So they seem willing to take a really hard stance now to try to force the union to fracture, because what they want is regime change within the union, or at least chaos and an inability to work together, just like the good old days. 

And that’s going to take a while, and it requires the owners not actually finding a consensus or compromise with the players on the CBA — because they would be seen as a win for Fehr. And that seems to be the one thing they are trying to not give him. 

And so this is going to go on a long time, until either the union DOES fracture and the factions fight and concede to the owners, or things hurt enough that the more progressive owners can wrest control from the current group and force the owner’s proposals to change and find that compromise agreement.

I don’t see either of those things happening any time soon; neither are going to happen in 2012, IMHO. The union won’t fall apart quickly, and I think the ruling owners have their power base under enough control that any shifts there won’t happen for a while. 

So this fight’s going to go on for a good while, and it may take out the entire season. 

And boy, do I hope I’m wrong about that.