Since the beginning of this lockout, your trusty correspondent has done his level best to respect the process. At no time did I ever think the lockout was needless or silly or all about egos or settling scores.
There was never a time when I thought these well-educated, experienced and passionate people were idiots for throwing away a $3.3 billion industry. The way I saw it, the previous collective bargaining agreement had expired and it could not be renewed until a deal could be achieved that would be acceptable to both sides. That gave the NHL the right to try to fix the mistakes it had made in the past and it gave the NHL Players’ Association the right to negotiate the best deal for its constituents.
I’ve tried to understand that locking out the players is the owners’ prerogative under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, just as it would have been an option for the players to go on strike. Or the two sides could have continued playing under the old agreement while they tried to negotiate a new one. The bottom line is that neither side was under any obligation to open the doors or start playing until a suitable deal was reached. How that was done was up to the two sides to work out and whatever tactics they used, within reason and within the confines of bargaining in good faith, were fair game.
But, my goodness, these two sides are making it increasingly difficult, nay impossible, to defend their positions. From the time talks blew up in New York one month ago, everyone involved in this standoff has accumulated an enormous amount of stink. And now, with threats of lawsuits flying back and forth, trust at an all-time low and both sides posturing with veiled threats then backing down, they are starting to look like a bunch of buffoons.
Let’s start with the league. They talk tough for a couple of months and insist they must get a deal that works for all 30 teams. Good luck achieving that, by the way. There is not a single collective bargaining agreement in existence that can address the disparities between markets in this league, nor is there one that can protect the perennial bottom feeders from making terrible decisions. No salary cap, no salary floor, no number of constrictions on contracts is going to make that happen.
But they think they need an ironclad agreement, so fine, give it a go. Then after months of posturing like a bunch of tough guys, the moment it looks as though (a) the season is in peril, and, (b) the players are taking steps to dissolve the union, five-year contracts aren’t a hill to die on anymore. Then the NHL sees the light on compliance buyouts, allowing not one, but two per team. Then it relents on the salary cap for the first year of the deal. Suddenly, it looks like the typical schoolyard bully who backs down the moment he receives a legitimate challenge to his status.
Then when the players’ association, essentially as a show of good faith, decides to not pursue disclaimer of interest, the league takes that as cue to start acting all tough again. It’s almost as though these guys are making it up as they go along. One minute they’ve given everything they can give and are prepared to cancel the season. The next minute they’re giving away everything they had previously held as sacrosanct in order to save a 48-game campaign.
The players and their leader, Don Fehr, meanwhile, show almost no interest in doing any meaningful bargaining until the pressure of a lockout emerges. Then the players’ association does a ritualistic mating dance with the NHL that is based primarily on avoiding the issues, showing up late and unprepared for meetings and playing an enormous number of head games. Then, the same union that has protected their interests and made them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams suddenly can be dissolved with a simple vote, and we’re supposed to understand the reasons for it and not believe it’s a complete sham. And by 6 p.m. Saturday, they’ll be in a position to do it all over again after what will be another decisive vote in favor of pursuing disclaimer of interest.
Then, in what we are led to believe are the most crucial, most pivotal days of the shutdown, the two sides spend the day accusing each other of lying and hiding revenues and get next to nothing done.
I’ve said from the beginning of the lockout that I don’t have a dog in this race and I still don’t. A pox on both their houses. I don’t believe the people involved are complete idiots, but I certainly can’t blame those who do.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.