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Bob Ryan

NHL lockout doesn’t make owners look good

Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs and his colleagues in the NHL ownership community have locked out the players since the start of the season.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File 2011

Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs and his colleagues in the NHL ownership community have locked out the players since the start of the season.

What I don’t want to hear is how you, the self-professed lifelong hockey fan, are giving up on hockey. You’re coming back. You know it and I know it, so let’s admit the truth and move on.

The owners know it, too.

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After all, NHL owners have experience in this sort of thing. It was only seven years ago that they shut down the league for an entire season. In the interim, the league has prospered to a once-unimaginable degree, its revenue having increased by 50 percent in that time. So naturally the response of the owners is to risk shutting down the league for a second time, apparently in the hopes that in so doing they will increase revenues even more between the institution and expiration of the next collective bargaining agreement.

Of course, that’s a facetious remark. It’s not as if the owners deserve any serious commentary.

But the people who love hockey will not abandon hockey. Even someone like myself, who likes it but who doesn’t love it, misses it. Being involved on a day-to-day basis in the Bruins’ successful chase to win a Stanley Cup in the spring of 2011 enhanced my appreciation for the sport and the people directly involved in it. On some nights, it was as good as the sport can get, and it caused me to follow the 2011-12 season closer than any previous season. I was surely looking forward to seeing the likes of Bergeron, Seguin, and Big Z again.

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That I can’t, and you can’t, is surely not the fault of the NHL Players Association, and I’m sure there was a time in the past when I would never have dreamed I’d ever be saying that about any group whose chief spokesman was Donald Fehr. The players would have been happy with the status quo, and let us remember that the owners happily agreed to the terms negotiated at the conclusion of the last work stoppage.

Now, things can change in the course of seven years, and it came to pass that the terms of the agreement did not turn out to be as favorable for some teams as for others. This should not have come as a surprise to anyone, since it is obvious to anyone with half a brain that Phoenix is not the only franchise in the National Hockey League that does not deserve to exist.

All of our major sports leagues have their Haves and Have Nots or, at least, Haves and Have Less, but nowhere is the split graver than it is in the National Hockey League. The people in Nashville, Columbus, Raleigh, and Miami-Ft. Lauderdale will get along very well without hockey; I can promise you that.

Had the concerned owners been even remotely reasonable, and somewhat less imperious, they would not have opened the current negotiations by — and this phraseology is far kinder and less incendiary than the owners deserve — insulting the intelligence and very honor of the Players Association with an opening “offer” that would have been considered downright laughable had it been part of a work of print or celluloid fiction.

I mean, chopping the players’ share of the pie from 57 percent to 43 percent? Proposing that a player must have 10 years of service before becoming eligible for free agency, this in a league where the percentage of players who actually play for a decade is in the single digits?

Even better, the owners tried to slip this jive by Donald Fehr? Even the Canadian owners should have been aware that Donald Fehr had proven time and time again during his tenure with the Major League Baseball Players Association to be an extremely intelligent and formidable, if not exactly lovable, individual.

But this is the thing about owners, you see. They don’t give a damn.

By that, I mean they don’t really give a damn about the players and they certainly don’t give a damn about the fans. Are there occasional conspicuous exceptions? Well, yeah. But not many, not when it comes to any interference with the bottom line.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was correct. The rich are different from you and me. They do have more money. And they are used to having their way.

It is always amusing to see the exasperation of a multimillionaire or billionaire owner when he discovers that what has worked in his business life does not transfer so well to the world of sport. What it usually comes down to is the annoying fact that, in sports, people are not simply the means of producing the product or service, people are the product. People have brains. People have feelings. People have opinions. People have a sense of justice.

This is something we need to remember, as well. All too often, fans and media members assign to ourselves a primary role in this sports thing. Obviously, fans are necessary for professional sports (or even non-professional sports such as high school and college sports) to justify the activity, and absent media coverage, the experience would clearly be lessened.

But let us never, ever forget that the absolutely irreplaceable element in the sports partnership is the athletes themselves, and in the case of professional sports, the athletes are the very best in the world at what they do. At any given point in time, those elite athletes are essential to the process. It all starts with them.

This is why some of the ultra-rich prefer to stick to thoroughbred racing for their sports-owning fix. There are no horses’ unions that we know of.

There is no seeming end to the owners’ duplicity. A few weeks ago, there appeared to be a significant breakthrough in the negotiations when the owners said they would indeed go for a basic 50-50 split of revenues, a number the union has said all along it would be happy with.

It turned out to be a sad, fraudulent attempt to gain parity in the ongoing public relations battle. The 50-50 wasn’t really 50-50 at all, at least not until a point deep into the length of the agreement, and under terms in which the NHL’s version of what constitutes applicable “revenue” was somewhat different than the union’s vision.

Once again I must ask: Don’t these people know whom they’re dealing with? Donald Fehr is not exactly a September call-up. He’s a negotiating first-ballot Hall of Famer. Yet the owners clearly have no respect for him whatsoever, and by extension that means they have no respect for the players or the fans.

We’ll all have to wait to see our hockey, but when we get it back, we’ll know whom to blame for the delay. And it won’t be the players.

Bob Ryan's column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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