This morning began, minute one, with the NHL again officially in lockout. Death. Taxes. NHL gone dark. Until further notice, there will not be an NHL training camp near you this September. Again.
If you’re keeping score at home, this is lockout No. 3, which makes the NHL the worldwide leader in pro sports RLSS (repetitive labor stress syndrome). Most acute symptom: a stabbing, chronic pain in the neck.
Good news is, regular-season games are not scheduled to begin until the second week of October, which allows time for owners and players to look in the mirror and figure out just how ridiculous they look to the general public (read: ticket buyers and cable/DirecTV subscribers).
The two sides combined to amass $3.3 billion in revenue during the 2011-12 season, and great minds and leaders on both sides once more cannot figure out how to divvy up such a humongous wad of cash to their mutual satisfaction and, of course, benefit and delight.
I’d like to believe that eventually fan interest will take such a sizable dip amid one of these dunderheaded job actions that the industry, owners and players alike, will learn once and for all not to be the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor of sports marriages. But the fans always come back, no matter what, ever willing to pay for ever-pricier tickets, pennants, and hot dogs.
NHL fans through the decades have become such enablers that they have, through their loyalty and/or addiction, shaped the owners’ thinking. Why do Jeremy Jacobs and his cohorts perpetually default to their lock-the-door-and-dangle-the-key strategy? Because, unlike in “Field of Dreams,” they know, “If you shut it down, the fans will always come back — in droves, Ray, in droves!’’
In hockey, fan loyalty is the viral bug that eats at the owners’ brains, rendering them unable to conjure up anything but their pernicious ways to settle collective bargaining conflicts. Today, yet another lockout is upon us. How soon before the owners threaten another 24 percent rollback on existing contracts? Heck, it worked last time. Bound to be a game-changer again in 2012 or ’13.
Where’s that Bob Goodenow guy when the owners really need him?
Remember, the NHL was roughly a $2.2 billion business prior to the game going dormant for all of 2004-05 in the last lockout, and last year that number — the only one that honestly, truly, really counts — hit $3.3 billion. For a game long considered the weak sister of North American professional sports, she’s pretty hot these days, and perhaps ready to turn into a hunk of burning financial love.
Among the reasons the Players Association is standing so resolute this time is the belief, as stated Thursday by its leader, Don Fehr, that the game’s economics are poised to take off dramatically in the next 2-4 years.
Of course, income growth is not the picture the owners portray at the table or in press conferences, but they’re the same guys who had commissioner Gary Bettman gushing just this past spring that business is great, great, great and every North American should soon look for a puck floating next to that chicken in his or her pot. (OK, that’s a stretch — he never said the pucks would float.)
As in all lockouts, each side in this one will ratchet up the rhetoric and shape, best each is able, a sympathetic picture. Well, no sympathy here for any of them. A pox on the owners and the players, because $3.3 billion is a horrible sum to waste, and not continue to grow. Both sides should have learned long ago how to maintain, shape, amend a relationship and its binding document that would avoid repetitive lockouts. For pros, these guys act like rank amateurs. All of them.
Yes, times change, and so do core economic issues, necessitating reworked CBAs. But issues don’t typically change with the speed of a Zdeno Chara slapper. If both sides were sincerely committed to making the NHL work, growing the game, sustaining economic growth, and engaging a fan base from generation to generation, they would do what it takes to avoid getting in a pathetic, public rock fight every 6-7 years. They would be, well, adult, acting in the best interests of the game and, in so doing, maintain a strong, healthy bond with their business partners and fans.
Above all, it seems to me, ensuring individual franchise health should be the key issue in structuring a new deal. What makes for a healthy league and a healthy revenue stream to its workers is the prospect of having 30 franchises all delivering at, or near, top dollar.
That has never been the case in the NHL. It is a league that always has its failing members; Phoenix and Florida were the worst of the lot in recent years, the likes of Winnipeg (later Phoenix) and Quebec City (later Denver) in days gone by.
If I were on either side of the aisle, I would be pushing for a safety-net system, in the form of a revenue-sharing concept that would negate the ever-present financial drag of hobbled franchises. Call it Proposition 2½, a fund that would have the players surrender 2.5 percent of their pay, and the owners pay a 2.5 percent tax on payroll. On an overall payroll of last season’s $1.87 billion, it would build approximately a $95 million-a-year safety net that might stop the owners from constantly scheming to enact lockouts as the first step toward slashing payroll.
Of all that Fehr had to say ahead of the weekend, I think he was right at the core issue when he said the players would prefer an agreement “that stabilizes this industry, provides incentives for the markets which need to grow to grow, and gets us out of the cycle we’ve been in in this sport.’’
Amen to that. Craft a new CBA that has every player and every owner surrendering relative pennies out of every payroll dollar as a means of securing the financial security of every franchise. Health equals wealth. For everyone. Maybe if both sides thought that way, the third lockout could be the NHL’s last. Why do I doubt that’s possible?
Will Thomas think twice?
The Bruins front office has had no contact with goalie Tim Thomas since his stated desire over the summer to put his career in “sleep mode.” General manager Peter Chiarelli said the subject of the two-time Vezina Trophy winner hasn’t come up either in any of his chats in recent weeks with Chicago-based agent Bill Zito, who also represents presumptive No. 1 Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask.
The overall vibe along Causeway Street, though, is that Thomas is never returning to the Hub of Hockey, even if he posted “I Stand With The Bruins!’’ on his Facebook page and showed up for the start of training camp (pick a date, any date).
One must wonder, though, whether a protracted lockout might alter Thomas’s career thinking. If, say, the NHL didn’t get back in action until Jan. 1, Thomas will have had better than eight months worth of rest, and no one else in the league will have played in an NHL game in 2012-13.
Who knows, maybe he figures the time would be right, or as right as it will ever be, and he finishes out the last year of his contract at a pro-rated $3 million.
If so, the bet here is that Chiarelli deals him, be it for merely a dollar bill or a bag of pucks. The move wouldn’t be out of spite or politics (we will know who’s in the White House by then), but simply out of practicality.
Rask is on the books for $3.5 million this season and likely will ink a long-term deal when the calendar turns to 2013. Anton Khudobin is the designated backup. Perhaps above all, it’s a management team that values team harmony and preserving/awarding core talent committed to being here. The ambivalent Thomas obviously doesn’t fit that template.
Wings retool on blue line
As Lockout Weekend approached, the Red Wings came to contract terms with free agent defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, the former Maple Leafs first-rounder (No. 17/2001) who was shipped to the Blues four years ago in the deal for Lee Stempniak. The Red Wings back line is in transition now, following the retirement of kingpin/icon Niklas Lidstrom and the trade of Brad Stuart to San Jose (where he now can cohost Bruins alum parties with Joe Thornton). Colaiacovo signed on with the Winged Wheels for two years/$5 million. As we speak, he’ll be in the mix with rookie Brendan Smith (ex- of Wisconsin) and returnees Niklas Kronwall, Jakub Kindl, Jonathan Ericsson, Ian White, and Kyle Quincey. No Lidstrom in that bunch. But truth is, there is no Lidstrom in any bunch, just as there was no Ray Bourque. Book Lidstrom’s Hall of Fame induction for November 2016, following the mandatory three-year cooling-off period.
A small, significant point
After spending the last two years lost in the Phoenix desert, 40-year-old Ray Whitney signed as a free agent over the summer for two years/$9 million with Michael Ryder’s Dallas Stars. A favorite son of small-market Edmonton, Whitney is a firm believer that the game needs to create a more effective method of revenue sharing. “I’ve played on small-market teams,’’ he said, “and it sucks when you know you can’t make yourself better because the league doesn’t provide for it.’’ Case in point, noted Whitney, is Nashville, where the Predators, he believes, will have a hard time surrounding franchise defenseman Shea Weber with top-rate talent now that they’ve matched the Flyers’ mega-offer to keep him on the roster. “I know that Shea Weber got that nice contract,’’ said Whitney. “But he’s probably saying, ‘Look, if we don’t get some help from the league . . .’ ” That’s the problem. There’s lots of money out there — just find a better way to divide it up so the small guys can fight.’’
Perspective on BU
As a Boston University alum, and someone who has reveled in fueling the BU-Boston College hockey rivalry with various references to Chestnut Hill being at “the wrong end of Comm. Ave.,’’ the various alleged escapades and known institutional failures around BU hockey of late are painful to learn. I hope that’s true for everyone, no matter what their alma mater or rooting interest. Two thoughts: 1. Making any comparison to what happened at Penn State is not only misguided, but vastly misjudges the evil perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky and the school’s hideous missteps around all of it. 2. I’ve known Jack Parker for some 40 years, and on my list of “Ten Things I’ll Never Doubt,’’ one is that overall he has done right by his players, by his employer, and by hockey at large. Mistakes were obviously made at what is today the wrong end of Comm. Ave. Some of Parker’s players went off the rails in terms of sexual misconduct and abuse of alcohol. All of them, including Parker, have to own it. To excuse whatever those truths are would be at least as egregious as the truths themselves. But the takeaway here should not be that BU has turned into Happy Valley East or that Parker willingly or unwillingly turned Terrier hockey into a renegade, hedonistic program. The takeaway should be that BU, its hockey players, Parker, and his assistant coaches all were badly in need of a wakeup slap, and they should all breathe a deep sigh of relief that that’s all they needed.
Soon after being dealt back to San Jose, where he began his career after being selected No. 3 overall in the ’98 draft, Brad Stuart signed for three more years at a total of $10.8 million. He was due to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, but the Red Wings dished him west for spare part Andrew Murray and a seventh-round draft pick (something in the 181-210 range). The Wings have done OK picking in that range, with such finds as Pavel Datsyuk (171/1998), Henrik Zetterberg (210/1999), and Jonathan Ericsson (291/2002) . . . The Kontinental Hockey League last week said that as many as three locked-out NHLers can join each of its Russian-based teams as add-ons, but in each case two of those three must be Russian-born (spared them the printing of signs that read: “North Americans Need Not Apply’’) . . . Nathan Horton’s deal is up after the coming year, but he missed half of last season with concussion-like symptoms. He likely will have to play 30-40 games, prove his head and game are sound again, before Peter Chiarelli writes him a long deal.