September 13, 2012

Here we go again: Looming NHL lockout a disgrace

By Jesse Connolly


They say that if you break a mirror, you’ll be cursed with seven years of bad luck. In 2005, the NHL broke the collective spirit of all of its fans across the globe, becoming the first league to cancel an entire season due to a work stoppage. Yet for some reason, the cosmic powers that be bestowed seven years of good luck upon them.

And now here we stand in 2012, with yet another feisty financial war between millionaires and billionaires on the cusp of jeopardizing another hockey season, fueled almost entirely by a greedy contingent of NHL executives and owners who fail to recognize just how miraculously fortunate they were the last time around.

During the last lockout, we were told it was all in the name of saving the league from crumbling, but as arenas across North America remained dark from October through June, that mattered little.

The consensus was that the league would have to fight tooth and nail to get folks back through the turnstiles. Couple that with the fact that ESPN dropped hockey like a sack of potatoes, forcing the NHL to partner with — of all stations — the Outdoor Life Network, and things looked pretty bleak going forward.

Yet somehow the NHL managed to pull a Tim Robbins in “Shawshank Redemption,” crawling its way through hundreds of yards of turd-smelling foulness, only to promptly come out clean on the other side.

After everyone said the league couldn’t recover, attendance has increased in six of the past seven years since the lockout. During the first year of the salary cap (2005-06), the most a team could spend was $39 million. That number has ballooned exponentially, and was set to be $70.2 million in 2012-13.

Last April, the league inked a 10-year, $2 billion deal with NBC, gaining fistfuls of dollars and oodles of exposure in the process, as OLN-turned-Versus-turned-NBC Sports Network (in conjunction with weekend and playoff games on the parent network) broadcasted in the neighborhood of 100 games during the 2011-12 season.

Throughout the past seven years, the NHL has gone from a $2.1 billion industry to one that now rakes in $3.3 billion annually, which prepresents more than a 50 percent increase in league-wide revenues. Putting such an astronomical jump into perspective given the dire straits the league plummeted into in 2005 is nearly impossible.

And yet, what’s the biggest holdup in hammering out a new collective bargaining agreement? It’s the league’s owners crying poor mouth, insisting that the players get too big of a piece of the proverbial pie. Their first order of business is to trim said slice from 57 percent of “hockey revenue” (would love to know how that’s calculated) down to 46 percent. Otherwise, the league once again will close its doors Sept. 15 when the current CBA expires.

This, quite simply, goes well beyond comical. Does the NHL really think we forgot about Ilya Kovalchuk’s 15-year contract? Maybe the summer signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching $98 million deals by Minnesota slipped our mind? Perhaps no one was paying attention when Shea Weber agreed to an offer sheet with the Flyers worth $110 million, forcing a small-market team such as Nashville — the “little guys” the league was looking out for in the last labor negotiations — to either part ways with their captain and top star or ask their fake Uncle Jack to loan them a few bucks and help save their franchise?

(OK, OK, so the Predators might not be run by the Bluth family, but you surely get my point, regardless of whether that “Arrested Development” reference flew over your head.)

Getting back to serious contemplations: Is the league really prepared to see all the momentum they’ve built up over the last seven years come to a screeching halt? Do they really want to run the risk of interest waning, attendance sinking and revenue subsequently heading in a downward trajectory?

Apparently Gary Bettman — holy crap, did it really take nearly 700 words for this guy’s name to come up? — says the league has squat to sweat.

“We recovered well last time because we have the world’s greatest fans,” Bettman said.

In case you don’t find commissioner-speak to English on Google Translate, here’s what Bettman’s saying: Nothing could keep you brainless sheep from coming back. The sad part is — shy of a few zealots who say they’ll swear off hockey forever and go watch jai alai or some other mostly nonexistent sport — he’s absolutely right. We’re never going to be able to completely turn our back on hockey.

Like some strange variation of Stockholm Syndrome, the NHL will once again hold us captive and we will respond by — at one point or another — forgiving them of their sins and giving them our time, our hearts and our hard-earned money. We essentially are forced to hope for the NHL to escape this pending mess unscathed. If they don’t, who knows? We could see another fan base lose its franchise or end up having to watch hockey on a completely nonsensical station such as the Hallmark Channel someday.

At the end of the day, all we can do is hope that Bettman, his cohorts and the NHL’s fat cats take a good, long look in the mirror and realize what kind of damage — no matter how reparable — they’re on the verge of doing to their fans, their business and the sport of hockey as a whole.

Surely you’re thinking this is the part where I come full circle and throw some ironic, broken mirror quip in to close things out, but with a commissioner that may soon be at the helm for his third lockout (can’t forget 1994-95) presiding over things, my count has the NHL’s true curse clocking in at 19-plus years and counting.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly covers the NHL for New England Hockey Journal and New York Hockey Journal and is the editor of HockeyJournal.com and NYHockeyJournal.com.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com