by Clark Groome
After what has been called a 113-day lockout (it’s really 120 days if you include the week it took to ratify the agreement), the 2012-2013 National Hockey League season will finally begin on Saturday, Jan. 19.
During the next 99 days the 30 teams will play 48 games at an exhausting game-every-other-day pace.
As the lockout wore on, people who love the sport – players, executives, fans, vendors, broadcasters, journalists, referees and linesmen, and game-day employees of the various venues around the league – became increasingly frustrated with the seeming inaction of the negotiators.
Everyone understands that negotiations of the kind taking place between the NHL and the NHL Players Association aren’t likely to be concluded after a couple of sit-downs. But why was most of that 113-day period spent with no negotiations? The sides would meet for a day or two then one side or the other would come out and call the other names.
After that, the parties would basically play a game of negotiating chicken with each side waiting, often for a week or more, for the other to say something like, “How about this?” And then the process would repeat, and repeat, and repeat.
The clearest view was that Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr didn’t like each other, that no one was prepared to really compromise and that they really didn’t give a damn about the fans and all the others negatively affected by the lockout.
So now they’re back. For many, it’s good news. It’s likely that the rinks in what are called traditional hockey markets – all the sites in Canada, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Colorado, Washington and maybe a couple of others – will be back to capacity after a few games. The other markets might not do so well.
Even those folks who are anxious to return to watch their favorite team are angry. Thousands of comments on Twitter, Facebook and quoted in the media have said that the fans need the league to do something that will prove the NHL’s commitment to its fans. Extra bobblehead giveaways are probably not what they’re talking about.
So here’s an idea.
If you were to take a poll of hockey lovers, it is likely that Bettman and Fehr would be the two people most blamed for the length of the lockout and the intransigence of the negotiations.
While no Fehr fan, remember that this was his first dance with the NHL brass. When he led the Major League Baseball Players Association during the 1990s, a time when MLB lost the only World Series since 1904, the aftermath has been labor peace. No more strikes, no more lockouts have happened since that horrible end to the 1994 season.
On the other hand, since Gary Bettman became the NHL’s first commissioner almost exactly 20 years ago, the league has faced three lockouts: in 1994-95, the full-season lost in 2004-2005, and the current one. Ten per cent of the games scheduled on his watch have been lost to labor disputes.
For most people inside and outside the sport, the commissioner is the bête, or should I say “Bettman?”, noir. In situations like this in business, government, education, you name it, someone often takes the hit. Someone falls on his sword, or in this case hockey stick, for the good of the order.
If Bettman were to resign it would have a tremendous healing effect on the sport and its fans. Don’t worry about him starving – he reportedly makes between $7 million and $8 million annually so he may have put some aside for a snowy day.
He could even save face by saying that his job is done, that he’s accomplished what he was hired to do. Maybe he could borrow President Bush 43’s “Mission Accomplished” sign when he holds his final press conference.
The owners say he has their support. What else can they say? The sport has grown during his tenure. League revenue has increased significantly. The last two lockouts have put the financial ship the owners were worried about in pretty good order. Someone else could carry on, someone with less baggage and maybe even some fan appeal.
As positive as his departure would be, I’m fully aware that it’s about as likely as the Columbus Blue Jackets winning the Stanley Cup. Clearly the last five months have been as much about power as about hockey. If Bettman were to step down, everyone’s focus could return to what New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, the Flyers’ Claude Giroux and countless others have called “the greatest game on earth.”