The NHL and NHL Players Association arent talking right now. They were earlier this week and seemed to be moving toward a coming together. Now, each sits while the league thats made both sides plenty of money shrinks in stature and visibility.
Theyre like silent spouses in opposite wings of a large house. Maybe this is what they meant when they declared after the last lockout they were partners.
See, League Screwup called another lockout less than a decade after negotiating a collective bargaining agreement that management said solved its biggest business concerns. Soon, the league will cancel more games, maybe the entire season for the second time in what would be nine seasons.
The same Donald Fehr that helped bring you the cancelled 1994 World Series (and, to be fair, some pretty nice benefits for baseball players after that) heads the NHLPA these days. Hes fully prepared to stare the nuclear option in the face with the same unblinking sour puss he shows to TV cameras.
Heres what I can tell you: The NHL manages to increase revenue, sometimes by multiples. It manages to increase overall visibility in a United States that also sees a steady increase in kids playing all types of hockey. The players manage to increase salaries by similar jumps.
They cant manage how to just keep the party going.
Also, the Private Snafu of sports leagues cant just have a lockout after a run-of-the-mill season.
1994: The New York Rangers break a 54-year Stanley Cup drought with dramatic seven-game series wins over New Jersey (arguably the greatest NHL playoff series ever) and Vancouver. The NHL is deemed hot, especially in contrast with dull NBA playoffs, the first lacking Magic, Larry and Michael in a generation. The Cup and Rangers stars appear all over mainstream media during the summer. The NHL follows with lockout!
2004: Tampa Bay, the most inept sports franchise at the end of the last millennium and the start of this one, finishes its two-year turnaround by beating Calgary in a thrilling Stanley Cup Final. Despite the change in perception from 1994, two non-marquee teams and a historically low-rated start, the Cup Final is seen by far more people than 1994s. In fact, by attendance and TV ratings, the NHLs still rolling even with a lockout hanging over their head.
The NHL follows with lockout! Lost season!
(A Florida team wins a championship while rebuilding a fan base, then cant really celebrate it. We know how well that works for said franchise, dont we?)
2012: Los Angeles, a franchise in the multimedia capital of the world, scrapes into the playoffs, then steamrolls its way to the first Cup in the franchises 45-season history.
The NHL follows with oh, you know what.
Theres a different sense among puckheads this time. Perhaps its about anticipation.
You could see the 2004 lockout coming at least two years away. The owners figured out how to skirt their own safeguards and wreck the business that the 1995 CBA shouldve saved, the owners and players finish the longest pregame to a labor stoppage in sports history.
Anybody with a sense of hockey history and the cementheads on each side knew they could blow up the 2004-05 season. In February 2003, I planned my departure from the Panthers/NHL beat to coincide with that lockout.
So, though crestfallen when the NHL did to the 2004-05 season what rioters did to downtown Vancouver after the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, hockeyphiles could just shake their heads at a sport managing to meet dirt expectations. OK, fine. Well all take a break for a year while you get your stuff together. Been spending a little too much on tickets and hockey cards anyway.
This time, though, people thought, They cant be stupid enough to do it again, can they? Surely, lessons had been learned.
Nope. The owners came out asking for fat salary rollbacks. The players, apparently forgetting they made up and lapped the 2004 salary rollbacks, got indignant.
This would be my 40th year as a hockey fan. I learned the games positions on an Oakland Seals-Pittsburgh Penguins table hockey game. I grew up following both the NHL and World Hockey Association. I fell asleep calling imaginary games I saw in my head. Forechecking schemes filled the margins of some school notebooks. The 11 seasons I covered the NHL day-to-day, being in the house for more than 100 games a year counting preseason, playoff and Cup Final games, ranks as the most enjoyable extended period of my career and probably always will.
This is what should worry the NHL and NHLPA: This time around, there are more people like me whove stopped caring if they play this year. And might not care if theyll play in succeeding years.
Its a great game, guys. Youre not the only ones who play it. And if you wont play it, Ill watch someone else who will.
Or, maybe Ill indulge in one of the million other things that can occupy my time, money and give-a-damn.