It seems like yesterday when Gary Bettman uttered those famous words, “We’ve now created a partnership with the players.”
While some, including me, rolled their eyes, give Bettman some credit — it sounded great at the time. We all know true business partners share everything 50/50. We also know NHL owners aren’t interested in sharing relocation or expansion money anymore than the players are willing to stroke cheques to help out an owner’s cash call from nervous banks. So let’s put the “partnership” term to bed once and for all.
However, thanks to the players’ willingness to do whatever it took to get the game back on track in 2005, they and the league grew revenues to unprecedented heights. A billion and a half to be precise. Pretty damn impressive considering the NHL was coming off a full cancelled season.
And how exactly did the players and league accomplish record revenues in such a short period of time? By simply making sure the players bought into a “partnership” mentality without actual ownership papers. And they bought in big time. The players revolutionized the game in a very short period of time, making it faster than it had ever been before by losing the clutching and grabbing. They added 4-on-4 overtime play and shootouts that eliminated those kiss-your-sister ties. Cameras were added in penalty boxes and dressing rooms, and ice level interviews between shifts brought fans closer to game action.
In a heartbeat, they went from appeasing traditionalists like me to a hipper cooler marketing scheme targeting the kids. It was as if new NHL business guru John Collins and the NHLPA took an EA video game and actually made it come to life. And that was only the beginning.
Interaction between the players and the fans has never been better. There are fan friendly all-star games where the paying customers get up close and personal with their heroes. The players even let HBO follow them home, helping to hype a Super Bowl-type Winter Classic game in front of 75,000 tailgating fans. They convinced the face of the league — Sidney Crosby — to put on his team jersey and deliver season tickets to blue-collar fans in suburban Pittsburgh.
So how could the league get Crosby and so many others to do the things past players would have shaken their heads at? It’s simply because the next generation of stars — those that entered the league after the lockout — were young and impressionable, not jaded from the labour problems of the past. The NHL future was in the hands of Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty and the roughly 60 per cent of the league who never experienced a labour dispute before. These were young, rich players the league knew had nothing to be bitter about, so why wouldn’t they be accommodating?
While some in the NHLPA tried to explain the animosity between the league and the union, the difficulty lay in getting the likes of Crosby and Toews to understand it. For them, the relationship had been a “partnership” since they had entered the league, so there was no reason to say “no” to promotional requests. Players like Rick Nash, Eric Staal, Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Jason Spezza, Michael Cammalleri and many more were pretty much in the same boat back in 2005 — just happy to be in the league. But how things have changed just eight years later.
Listening to today’s young players like Toews talk about Bettman sounds like one of those veterans from 2004. The next generation has been officially tainted by the same paint brush Bettman used in 1994 and 2004.
It’s really a shame for guys like Sid, Ovie and Toews because they deserve better, because of the promotional grunt work they have done the past eight years. My generation would simply have told the league to take a flying leap on many of their “outside the box” ideas. Fat chance of ever seeing Mario or Wayne putting on their team jerseys and delivering season tickets door to door. Hey Gary, isn’t that why you have sales people and access to UPS?
A Sunday NHL all-star game that feels like it lasts more than a long weekend? Good luck getting Brett Hull or Patrick Roy to parade like cattle.
Not these present day players, though. Before labour unrest, Ovie and the boys were willing to do anything to put hockey on the map. Would Steve Yzerman or Mark Messier ever put on a silly hat, sun glasses, or Superman cape on and dive head first into a goalie to sell the game? Not for all the tea in China. Yet today’s players went the extra mile so the league could finally get the U.S. national TV/cable deal that had eluded them since the days of the stupid glowing puck.
So will the players be willing to go the extra mile again once this meaningless lockout ends? I’m not so sure. For the young stars like Crosby, Ovie, Shea Weber and Ilya Kovolchuk who are locked into mega-million long-term deals, what is their incentive to grow the game now? To put more money into the 54 per cent share of the revenues the owners want? Why the NHL needed to drag these accommodating young guys through what should have been an easily avoidable financial war is beyond me.
Wasn’t canceling the 2004-05 season suppose to avoid all of this altogether? Bettman and his lawyers got their “cost certainty” in the form of a multi-leveled, revenue-tied salary cap, so this 2012 deal should have been easily the fastest CBA negotiation in the history of sports labour. The players today know they need to come off the 57 per cent and the owners should know their ridiculous humiliating initial offer tarred any chance of a fair deal before losing the first month of the season.
The bad blood Bettman created — once again — with the most important assets of the NHL’s $3.3-billion empire should have been avoidable. This new generation is now learning to hate Gary Bettman, just as my generation did, because they know his strategy is to first take away the their livelihood, then construct a great deal for the owners based on players missing Ferrari payments.
But because Bettman chose this hard line of negotiating once again, his biggest obstacle won’t just be getting the CBA deal he wants for his owners, it will be getting his players to jump through those promotional “hula hoops” that helped push revenue past $3 billion.
Growing up, my mom used to tell me that “hate” is too strong of a word, to use “dislike” instead. I don’t think I could get 750 players today to agree with my mom.