While each side saunters up to the podium and tries to sell the public on their respective agendas, the people largely responsible for the league's economic success sit in front of their televisions or computers and simmer. Many of us who sat through the last lockout - you know, the one that wiped out an entire season
- were made to believe that sensibility would win out this time around. Surely the league and its players wouldn't let another season go by the wayside with the wounds of the last labor stoppage still so fresh.
Boy, were we stupid.
Eight years ago, fans were immeasurably upset when the decision was made to take a hatchet to the 2004-05 campaign - but eventually, we understood. We weren't thrilled about the decision, but it made sense: the economic system was broken and in desperate need of a comprehensive reboot. Players resisted a salary cap like a child dodging a flu shot, then capitulated when they realized there wouldn't be another NHL game played without one. In return, the league agreed to hand over an exorbitant percentage of total revenue - a move that allowed the average NHL salary to grow
from $1.8 million to $2.2 million over the life of the collective bargaining agreement.
Both sides took hits, but agreed that it was for the good of the game - and fans benefited like never before, suddenly treated to the return of firewagon hockey, an influx of incredible young talent and greater parity than the NHL had ever seen before.
Fast forward to 2012. The league pulled in record revenues, the playoff races
were tighter than ever and the Los Angeles Kings
put together one of the greatest postseason runs in recent memory to claim their first Stanley Cup title. Momentum was clearly on the league's side heading into the summer.
Now? Not even a little bit.
Owners, it amazes me how you have managed to escape the epicenter of the fans' ire in this debacle. Most of the attention seems to be centered on whether people are more mad at the players or at commissioner Gary Bettman. And that's not fair: Neither Bettman nor the players' association force you to dole out bad contract
after bad contract
, then cry poor when they don't pan out. Sometimes, you end up bidding against yourselves. In other cases, you're clearly paying for past performance rather than for what you're getting in the future.
Whose fault is that? Yours.
Besides, it's hard to feel sympathy for owners who don't feel sympathy for fans. Bad attendance sometimes means higher ticket prices to compensate for the lower gate. Good attendance almost always means higher ticket prices because hey, you need to strike while the iron is hot. Some owners repeatedly seek out taxpayer funds to help build arenas which stand to make them even wealthier. And when it doesn't happen, they occasionally threaten to move the team somewhere else.
NHL owners are NHL owners because they became rich at something else, and saw a pro sports team as a slam-dunk way to make money, either through annual profit or through the eventuality of increased franchise valuation. With so much money on the table in the latest CBA negotiations - and the opportunity to squeeze more dollars out of the NHLPA in their sights the longer they hold out - do you think they give even a sliver of thought to what the fans think?
This is not to suggest that the players have no culpability. They are, in fact, quite culpable.
The NHLPA's insistence that its 700-plus members are somehow owed a slice of hockey-related revenue anywhere near the 57 percent contained in the old CBA is absolutely reprehensible. The unwavering resolve the players showed at Thursday's news conference is touching, but let's see how united they are when some guys receive an escrow payment of around $40,000, and Alex Ovechkin
and Sidney Crosby
are cut a check for $650,000.
Some players actually need an NHL season in order to pay the bills. They may say otherwise now that everyone is on the same page, but that tune will change as soon as paychecks are missed. Not everyone will be able to wrangle a spot on a team overseas. Some guys will be left without a gig for the length of the lockout - and that is sure to create dissension in the ranks.
The players have insisted that they will not give any money back - no rollbacks, no retroactive salary reductions, nothing of the sort. What was once a 24-percent rollback request from the league was trimmed down to nine percent in the last NHL proposal. Nine percent - roughly $200,000 of an average player's salary. That's certainly a lot of money.
Of course, the ticket takers, concessions workers, ice crews and other arena employees will be taking a much bigger hit. Those who work in the offices of each of the NHL's 30 franchises face inevitable layoffs. Neighboring restaurants, shops and other businesses are sure to suffer. The people who get lambasted the hardest don't make anywhere close to $2.2 million. And their loss is a lot more significant than nine percent.
As out of touch as the owners are with their respective fan bases, the sad truth is that the players aren't much different. Most of them have been given preferential treatment for most of their adult life - and in many cases, well before then. They arrive to the NHL to find most of their meals covered, their accommodations paid for and the off-ice perks generous and constant. They get paid to sign hockey cards, stick, pucks and jerseys. A 30-second commercial spot is an easy paycheck. Even without the seven-figure salary, life is good.
And yet, they fiercely defend themselves whenever somebody mentions how much money they make for playing a game. They say that giving back even a cent on deals they've already signed is essentially a non-starter. Armed with greed in their hearts and a misguided notion that they can wait the owners out, the players insist they're "well-prepared" for a lengthy lockout - which is great. Too bad the people they've helped put out of work can't say the same thing.
If fans are truly fed up this time - and they sure sound like it - then it's time to take action. ESPN's Darren Rovell took some heat for suggesting that the fans share the blame
in situations like this. While his premise is flawed, there were some nuggets of truth in what he wrote. The owners and players believe they can withstand a long layoff because they know the fans will flock back the moment the lockout is over. And who could blame them for feeling that way? That's exactly how it has happened every other time.
That's why this time has to be different. Fans need to show ownership and the players' union that they can't continue to hold people hostage over dollars and cents. With owners unanimous in their support of Bettman's hard-line stance and the players equally defiant, the fans need to form their own consensus - one which holds both sides accountable in whatever way they can.
It's wishful thinking to expect people to stop attending or watching NHL games, but what if people used social media to voice their concerns? Created YouTube videos expressing their outrage at yet another short-sighted labor dispute? Formed league-wide petitions asking for reduced ticket prices for the season, or some other appropriate form of atonement? One small gesture is easy to render as insignificant, but thousands of them would be difficult to ignore.
Regardless of how things play out, the truth is that Lockout 2012 never should have happened. The two sides sound more like political parties and less like partners willing to engage in good-faith negotiations, twiddling while their sport burns. And while both sides will likely end up losing something along the way, it will never compare to the damage done to fans, team employees and hockey itself.