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Devellano's cattle quote raises specter

Red Wings vice president Jimmy Devellano Red Wings VP Jimmy Devellano has been around the NHL for 45 years and has a reputation for speaking openly but not always wisely. (Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

Without negotiations toward a new CBA to mull over, it's starting to get nasty out there. The clock is ticking and the ill will is rising.

Apart from the chance that informal talks might take place on Monday evening -- and they seem to contain little more than each side asking the other if they've budged and neither doing so -- the NHL lockout entered its second week with little real movement; unless, that is, you count as "movement" more players signing to skate in Europe and the fine that the league levied against the Red Wings. We feared this would happen a month ago and predictions by some that the league could resume in time for the Winter Classic took a hit when Kevin McGran of The Toronto Star revealed last Friday that the NHL plans to cancel the game come November if no deal is in sight. The Wings' Dan Cleary said Monday that he believes the impasse could surpass the last lockout.

So hockey fans must be content with the public relations battle between the NHL and the NHLPA. On that front, Red Wings executive Jim Devellano did the owners no favors with his rather malevolent characterization of the players  -- and all employees of the owners, himself included -- as cattle, among other strange remarks he made in an interview.

The league whacked the Red Wings, reported by some to be $250,000, for Jimmy D.'s remarks (although David Shoalts of The Globe and Mail doubts the NHL will bother to collect the money). Regardless, what Devellano said shows the wisdom of Gary Bettman's prohibition on anyone among the owners or their minions speaking about anything concerning labor relations.

The larger questions in this little brouhaha remain, however: how accurate is the picture that Devellano painted of the owners' regard for players and others in their employ? And was that the worst of what Jimmy D. said?

In case you haven't read it yet elsewhere, here's what Devellano told Scott Harrigan on the British Columbia website Island Sports News while discussing the explosion of contracts at big salary levels the owners doled out just prior to the lockout: “It’s very complicated and way too much for the average Joe to understand, but having said that, I will tell you this: The owners can basically be viewed as the Ranch, and the players, and me included, are the cattle. The owners own the Ranch and allow the players to eat there. That's the way it's always been and that's the way it will be forever. And the owners simply aren't going to let a union push them around. It's not going to happen."

Well, no one likes to be disrespected or considered (even if it's just by way of metaphor) as anything less than human, especially by the guy who signs their paychecks. Devellano's words reinforce among the players some of the messages that the NHLPA has forwarded in recent weeks.

Are there owners who think that way? No doubt. But do all or even most of them believe that players are no more than cattle? It's hard to imagine that Mario Lemieux thinks that way, having been a player. Or that Wayne Gretzky did when he owned a piece of the Coyotes. When you hear Terry Pegula get emotional about what the Buffalo Sabres and their players have meant to him, it's difficult to conceive that he considers the players cattle.

Devellano knows his boss better than I do, but from everything I've ever heard about Mike Illitch, he doesn't seem like a man who thinks that way, either. Illitch has always cared about his players and he cares about the game: He's contributed a huge amount of his Little Caesar's resources to help promote and foster youth hockey and other sports in Detroit. You don't do that if your perspective is one that denigrates and objectifies the people playing the sport. Maybe Illitch is an exception and the rule is the kind of guy that Devellano described. Tough to know for sure.

Whatever the true sentiments of the majority of the owners, the damage has been done. It's in the news cycle now and the perception that Devellano imparted is being reinforced. For example, the Sharks' Martin Havlat went right after it through his agent in remarks that are being widely disseminated. Alan Walsh tweeted that Havlat told him: 'The comments made by Devellano are nothing new. The players know that’s how Bettman and some of the owners think, we’re not shocked at being called ‘cattle’. I can tell you the players have been called a lot worse by some of the guys on the other side, it’s just never been reported publicly. I think it helps that the fans get to hear what we already know, we’re not humans in their eyes, we’re just pieces of meat that get to eat some grass for a while.”

Bruce Arthur in Monday's National Post called Devellano's sentiment a gaffe that accidentally tells the truth.

Shoalts reminded his readers that "The cattle analogy was first used by NHL outside counsel Bob Batterman when he was the architect of the 2004-05 lockout" (as did as The Boston Globe's Kevin Paul Dupont and former agent, Maple Leafs exec and media personality Bill Waters via Twitter). Batterman remains a presence on the NHL legal team in this lockout.

(The original quote, reader David Boyd reminds us, was from 1987 and uttered by Tex Schramm, the original president and GM of the Dallas Cowboys. As NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw recalled during testimony 20 years ago during an anti-trust trial against the NFL, Schramm "said the players are like cattle and the owners are ranchers and the owners can always get more cattle.")

Now, let's keep this "cattle" quote in its proper context, because it's even more damaging than most believe. Devellano formed his rancher analogy while speaking about Restricted Free Agency and his contention that there's an "unwritten rule" that teams don't sign other teams' RFAs. It's not against the actual rules to do so, he said, and the Flyers signing of Shea Weber to an offer sheet shows it can be done. But "just like everything else in life, some people are great to deal with, some aren't. If you are asking me if it's right, I would say there is, again, an unwritten rule...we all know it in the NHL, but not everyone follows it."

The cattle quote got most of the attention, colorful as it was. But this second passage could be viewed by the legal minds who run the sports world as a hugely damaging contention because it raises the specter of collusion among owners to illegally keep player salaries down. Major League Baseball owners have been found guilty of collusion on occasion and it's expressly prohibited in MLB's CBA.  I'm no expert in the NHL's CBA, however I've been unable to find any specific language in it that's like what's in baseball's agreement. But regardless, the image that the owners have some sort of "unwritten rule" designed to thwart a category of free agency certainly doesn't make them look especially good. That part of what he said is drawing fire as well.

Devallano is an interesting man. Bespectacled, balding and possessed of a unique laconic speech pattern, he's been a continual Detroit front office presence since Mike Illitch bought the club from the Norris family in the early 1980s and made Devellano the GM. He's been around the NHL even longer than that -- forever, it seems -- back to 1967 and the first year of the St. Louis Blues (as a scout) and, a few years later, the start of the Islanders franchise where he helped GM Bill Torrey build a dynasty. He knows the business of hockey rather thoroughly and he's never been reluctant to dispense what he knows when a reporter asks, although, like a lot of hockey executives (and anyone in public life), he's got a certain distrust of the media, which is not entirely unjustified.

That doesn't mean that Jimmy D. always speaks wisely himself, or can't be confused. In that Island Sports News interview, he maintained that Gary Bettman -- who Devellano portrays as just doing the bidding of the 30 owners who are directing him in this lockout -- is forced to absorb all sorts of abuse from fans. That when the confusion starts: "It is always people jumping on Bettman and to be honest he doesn't care," says Devellano, who then immediately contradicts himself. "Maybe that's what irks the fans is that he comes away looking like it doesn't bother him in the least. But I will tell you this, Scott, it does bother him, he has said as much to me many times. He has said he wished he wasn't booed wherever he goes, or that every time he reads the papers he is slammed. It does bother him greatly. However he knows what his job is and he does it well."

Oh, well. I guess Jimmy is frustrated and anxious just like everyone else around hockey. And now he's gotten himself caught up in the media machine and he's going through the spin cycle. That can't be fun. He was among those quoted by McGran in the article on Friday about the league's plans for the Winter Classic. “We’re going forward with (the Winter Classic) at this point in time,” Devellano said on behalf of the Wings. “It’s way too early to start to speculate. It’s at least a month too early to worry about it.”

That could be the last quote we hear from Jimmy D. for a while.

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