You should know that I’m a communist. Not the totalitarian, gulag-running kind who would cheer for Mother Russia against the dastardly Canadians in a hockey game, but the Yugo-driving, food-stamps-for-everyone, CBC-loving kind.
Okay, so that’s a pretty weak branch of communism, but given my pinko leanings, you might suspect that I would support the NHL owners’ salary-cap initiative for their economically floundering league. It would be the ultimate triumph for a commie, seeing the free market fail like that. But it doesn’t feel right. While I can sympathize with the owners, the players’ union is doing much more to help resolve this dispute, and it is the owners, I think, who have their heads in the sand.
It is easy to understand why the players would be reluctant to give up control of their salary scale, but I don’t buy their argument that because a hockey player’s career lasts, on average, four NHL seasons, they need the extra compensation. Average salaries are $1.8 million (US!) per season; that adds up to a hefty total of $7.2 million. Many are much better off than that. I’ll tell you what: if anyone wants to give me $7.2 million, even in Canadian dollars, I’ll do whatever they want for four years. Never mind playing a game I love; I’ll work in a paper mill for four years (not to disparage paper-mill workers; it’s just a job I know I’m not very good at and don’t like much). If you paid me $7 million to train for four years, I’d be an Olympic athlete, I’m almost sure. If only our summer Olympians had that kind of cash.
But I digress.
While I find the players’ position to be a little silly, I can’t blame them for wanting to keep the system the way it is: when you’re on top, you don’t want to come down, even for the greater good.
Supposedly, the “greater good” here refers to the fans. I have no sympathy for them, at least not those who spoke up on The National’s “Your Turn” Q & A shows with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players' Association head Bob Goodenow. I shudder to think that these are the spokespeople for the greater good. To the guy who complained that he didn’t want to have to watch some lame reality show on Saturday night: Read a book! Spend some time with your family! Go to a minor hockey game at a local rink! Seriously, people, the NHL is not the be-all and end-all of hockey. Here’s a tip: live hockey, at almost any level, is better than the televised game. Most Canadians don’t go to live NHL games—which are, admittedly, the fastest you’ll see on the planet—but watch them on TV. This is part of the reason why people think the NHL game has changed so much since the good old days: it is faster, probably, but camera angles play a role in making the hits look bigger and the cuts look tighter.
In Montreal, there are no less than four high-quality university teams (two men’s teams and two of the best women’s teams in the country), no end of minor hockey teams and of course la Ligue Nord Américaine de Hockey (formerly the Quebec Semi-Pro League), featuring the Verdun Dragons (led by former Toronto Maple Leaf Daniel Marois, no less) and the Laval Chiefs (who may soon have Mike Ribeiro in the lineup). Every city in Canada has a minor hockey system. And judging by the number of rural Albertans, Saskatchewanians and Ontarians presently locked out by the NHL, there’s bound to be hockey in the non-urban regions as well. In other words, there is no reason to complain that there is no hockey.
Fans also need to know the facts: this is a lockout, not a strike. The players are ready to play; it’s the owners who are stopping them. I’ll cut some slack to the children who called in because kids just want to see their heroes play. But those adults who can’t figure out the difference between a lockout and a strike may need to spend less time watching reality TV.
The owners locked out the players because they felt they would lose too much money if the season were played. Gary Bettman says he’s looking for a “negotiating partner.” Nonsense. What Bettman needs is to be flexible. The players have made a generous offer that cuts back on their salaries, security and earning potential. They are making an effort to strike a deal because they want to play; it’s still a game to them. For most of the NHL owners, it is not a game. It’s all business—a money-making venture gone awry, mostly because of their own greed.
Gary Bettman claims that the league can support the nine new teams added in the past nine years, even while teams in Nashville, Carolina and Anaheim are dragging the league down. He and lawyer Bill Daly (who comes across as a bigger asshole than Bettman in most interviews) quote average revenue figures to show that the league can handle thirty franchises, but then claim that most teams are losing money. Which is it?
A smaller league, despite cutting down on jobs for the players, would increase rivalry and decrease the number of games played. Because every team has to play each other at least once, for marketing purposes, fewer teams would mean more games against rivals in different conferences or divisions, like Detroit-Toronto or Boston-Chicago (rivalries still simmering from the era when there were only six teams in the league). A smaller NHL, with a shared revenue system (like a luxury-tax system of the kind the players’ union, or even Brian Burke with his famous escrow, has proposed) would make things better for everybody.
If even a communist like me can agree with the supposedly greedy and assuredly capitalist players’ union (itself a contradiction—but from whom did unions learn greed?), surely the owners, expert economists and ardent communists must see what must be done for the greater good.
John Lofranco is a Montreal-based writer, teacher and distance runner.