They say, when you get married the one quality you love most about your spouse is also the one thing that will drive you crazy. The same can be said about hockey fans when it comes to their beloved players.
Fans have always marveled at the finesse and skill; the speed and passing; the shooting and stick-handling, but it is the fight in the dog they love the most. Unfortunately it’s that stubborn unwillingness to back down that will shut NHL hockey down yet again.
Did you really think hockey players would just hand over to the NHL owners hundreds of millions of dollars without a fight? It’s not in their DNA to just lie down and say, ‘Thank you Mr. Bettman, may I have another?’
So here we go. Déjà vu all over again. The problem for the players is that they have seen this movie before and it didn’t end so well last time out.
Yes, financially the NHLPA actually fared much better than anyone could have predicted because of unexpected growth in league revenues, but it came with a tremendous price. They lost the war over the salary cap and ultimately the owners brought the union to their knees.
Former NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow, who was highly regarded by the players, resigned shortly after the negotiations ended in 2005. He flat-out refused to negotiate any form of salary cap on behalf of the players and was later relieved of his duties. In many ways, current executive director Donald Fehr is viewed in the same light as Goodenow was in the 2004-05 lockout. Also, in many ways Goodenow and Fehr’s styles are similar in terms of their prep work going into an owners’ lockout.
Many of the current players’ quotes at Thursday’s press conference in New York sounded verbatim like they came directly from the last Goodenow lockout. They spoke of solidarity and of their resolve. No different than eight years ago. No different than we did in the 1994 lockout, the first for owners.
Yes, Donald Fehr gets more credit than Goodenow ever did as a great communicator, but at the end of the day, will that really matter if the players can’t finish what they started? Can Fehr do what Goodenow did not? Can he get the players to stick to the game plan without surrendering with their tails tucked between their legs?
The other big difference between the two is that the former wasn’t afraid to tell his players what he thought it would take to win a financial war with deep-pocketed owners and to avoid the dreaded salary cap. And that was to withhold their services for up to two years.
No one knows how long Fehr might have told the players it could take for them to win this time around. A month? Until Christmas? An entire season? Publicly he won’t say. The most we have gotten out of Fehr at his various press conferences is that the players are taking this thing day-to-day. At the very least, you’ve got to believe Fehr didn’t sign up for the job of leading the players to be as thoroughly embarrassed as Goodenow was on the day the last lockout ended.
Roughly 60 per cent of the current players have never experienced a lockout. That’s a double-edged sword if you ask me. Does that make the players more prone to be followers of Fehr or does that make them more apt to panic after missing a few pay cheques? I can certainly tell you Bettman and the owners are banking on the former and not the latter.
Past experience has allowed Bettman to be confident enough to say the reason why the NHL consistently recovers from continual labour shut downs is because, “We have the world’s greatest fans!” Translation: We have the world’s greatest suckers who will wait as long as it takes to get what we want.”
Eight years ago Bettman broke the players’ resolve when the NHLPA president at the time, Trevor Linden, waved the white flag. Simply put, in order to get the business of hockey back on the ice, he and his committee caved.
In order for the players to feel victorious this time around, they must cut the best deal possible for themselves through collective strength and not weakness. If the players learned only one thing from the last lockout I’d hope it is this: If you really believe in your rights as players, have the guts to finish what you started.