Even When There Is No Hockey, The Leafs Will Suck

AP /Mary Altaffer

I don't usually talk about sports. Mostly, because I'm not a fan of sports. I don't know that much about the rules of various sports, and except for a very brief spell in youth baseball (during which I got hit by a pitch from my own team), I don't play sports. Everybody has a blind spot, and sports are mine.

Except hockey. Hockey is great. As far as I'm concerned, a sport isn't a sport unless it's on ice, and at least one person carries a massive stick.

And now there isn't hockey. Not NHL hockey. Not this year. Sure, they might reach a deal mid season, but if they couldn't reach a deal by now, chances are neither side will be desperate to in the coming weeks. Everyone backs away from the table, bitter and angry, and one side doesn't have the ice to take that level of aggression out on anymore. So yeah, good bye 2012/2013 season.

This is the fourth work stoppage in the NHL since 1992, and the third under NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, a [editorial comment] miserable little weasel of a [/editorial comment] human being, with no respect for the game, only a blind adherence to profit margins.

Hit the jump for the rest of, what quickly became, a rant about this lockout, the NHL, and Bettman.

“A lockout is supposed to be a last option,” said Jason Spezza, of the Ottawa Senators. “But it seems like it’s a negotiating tactic for them." And he's right. A lockout is meant to be the only option left available, when talks have broken down, when arbitration falls part, when there is no other recourse on the management side. The players can strike, the league can lock out. Except under Bettman, it has become the first step. Contracts are up, so there might be a lockout. They were talking about a lockout back in March. It has become the default position, the defencive move right from the get go. And as we've seen, it's not that dissuading of an idea. In fact, it's become absolutely powerless as a tactic. Ottawa Senator Chris Phillips believed it had become a bluff, saying:
“I just find that sort of hard to believe. It sounds like he doesn’t want to get a deal done. What happens if we come close to where they’re at right now? Does that mean you’re going to risk losing the season because you’re not willing to give at all? You get frustrated. He’s trying to play the mean tough guy and I guess you have to call him on it.”
The reason for this lockout: profit sharing. The league wants players to take salaries cuts, and deduce the amount of profit sharing from it's current 57%. The league wants that number down to 49%, the players wanting 54.3% with a gradual reduction over the course of the contract. Somewhere in that 5.3% of the nearly $4 billion total revenue the NHL made last year, is the reason we won't have any hockey for the foreseeable future.

The problem is on both sides of the table. The ownership of teams continues to give lengthy, expensive contracts, many of which end up not being worth their price after a few seasons. Most teams are addled with paying off former contracts, after having to ditch once star players after they stopped being able to produce. For example, last season's Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson was given a 7 year, 45.5 million dollar contract by the Senators in the summer. This locks him up until the 2018 season. All based on an out-of-nowhere season that saw him end the year with 78 points. This contract reflects a belief that he will continue to produce at that level, which anyone will tell you he will not. No one could. Maybe for another year or two, but for seven? The same logic inflicts serious financial woes on nearly all the teams.

The league itself is no less to blame for the "financial troubles" of the NHL. Bettman famously expanded the NHL into the American southwest, bringing the league to 30 teams. The six Canadian teams that existed during the 2010/2011 season counted for a full third of the 1.2 billion dollar ticket sales across the full 30 teams. The expansion into the American southwest, a market that is dominated by football and baseball teams, and a sever apathy for anything ice related, has proven to be a headache, and only markets that have large retirement communities of former Canadian and American northeasterners have teams that are marginally successful.

The American teams that have seen increased profits tend to be teams that border the northeast, teams like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington. On the list of the seven most profitable teams in the league, the only American teams present are the New York Rangers and LA Kings, who benefit by existing in huge markets characterised by having large non-native populations. This leaves 23 teams that break even, or are unprofitable. Teams that cannot support contracts at the prices they are currently awarding. Despite this, Bettman is strictly against opening up new Canadian franchises, based on the notion that there are not markets large enough to support teams. This, despite teams like the New York Islanders, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Atlanta Thrashers all existing in large markets and seeing their number diminish (Atlanta was so unsuccessful they were moved to Winnipeg).

Canadian markets, no matter how small, would embrace an NHL franchise for the same reasons American high school football stadiums are packed every Friday: it's the national pass time. Hockey games broadcast in the US have some of the consistently lowest rating of major sporting events. In Canada, Canadians watch hockey like Brits watch (proper) football. Television schedules are rearranged, cities explode when teams loose. But Bettman refuses to accept that passion for the game, something he is completely bereft of, isn't an indicator for success, only pure statistical numbers. This is why teams like Dallas and Phoenix continue to linger, despite serious problems. His logic: they are big enough cities, so a hockey team will be successful there. Except they aren't, and never will be. Not in the same way that Quebec City, or Regina, or Halifax would embrace a team.

Lockouts hurt everyone, though. Employees of arenas now have no jobs every second night of the week. Bars and hotels in those areas will see a sever drop in business. Local economies will take a hit. Maintenance staff, especially those responsible for the ice, will be out of work. The American and Provincial Leagues will see spikes in attendance, as season ticket holders like myself are desperate to see something, anything with a puck involved. But major league hockey isn't the same as profesional league, and the fans know that.

Here is what needs to happen: the players need to better understand that unless they play under a leaf shaped flag, chances are their team isn't going to be able to afford what they are paying out year after year, and that salaries reductions will have to happen, just not in the huge cuts the league is insisting on. Teams are going to have to stop signing ridiculously huge contracts for absurdly long terms (NHL players make more on average then an NFL player, by benefit of there being fewer players on each team, and the teams spending more then they should).

And, Bettman needs to go. It's been said before, and much more vitriol then I'm capable of, but it needs to be done. Four work stoppages in 20 years, three under his management. Continued existence of low or non profitable teams, and ignoring markets that would support franchises in favour of an NFL style market share. And a complete unwillingness to negotiate, at any level. He has no respect for the sport, and no respect for players or fans. Negotiation implies a give and take, but Bettman's tactic is to stand stubborn and resolute, and never waver. The NHL governors need to recognise that Bettman hurts their brand, hurts their profits, and is unfit for his position. In the wake of this latest lockout manoeuvre, he needs to be removed.

Most importantly, we need hockey back.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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