I vividly recall chatting with Jeff O’Neill the day the lockout ended in 2005. Upon discovering that veterans with 10 years experience would get a single hotel room on the road, O’Neill quipped, “Boy we really took them to the cleaners on that one, didn’t we?”
That was the tone of things in 2005. The league had not only triumphed in CBA talks, it absolutely crushed the players. It had reduced the union and its leadership to scorched earth and the players had been forced to accept a salary cap after missing a season of paychecks. The teams would now know the cost of doing business and for most of them, it would be much, much lower.
And we all know how that turned out.
Whenever this lockout does finally end – and it will someday – perhaps it would be wise for all of us to refrain from succumbing to the temptation to declare winners and losers. Because I truly believe that one of the major reasons why the league has taken such a hard line this time around is it was portrayed as the big winner and it managed to fritter away its advantages in record time.
That has led Gary Bettman & Co., to try to construct an even more idiot-proof CBA this time around, one that is so iron clad that you won’t even be able to get a piece of dental floss through it, forget about a loop. When Bettman spoke to the media after talks blew up (again) in early December, he acknowledged, “Listen, collective bargaining is hard stuff and sometimes it is made even harder depending on the goals and objectives that people have and organizations have.”
Nailed it, Gary. Negotiating a deal as complex as this one is difficult at the best of times, but when the goal of the league is to save its teams from themselves and score a decisive knockout at the same time, should we be surprised that the players and their leader, Don Fehr, display the kind of resolve we’ve been seeing throughout the dispute?
So that leaves us in a complete mess at the moment. Instead of working toward a deal that some people think is there for the making, the league and players have instead chosen to polarize themselves even further from one another. For the next four days, the players will conduct a vote on whether or not their union leadership should abandon its responsibility for representing them. Just so we have this straight, the players are going to vote on whether or not to effectively disband as a union, only to reassemble once the lockout ends.
The league, on the other hand, is intent on exposing this tactic as the sham that it is and has filed notice with the National Labor Relations Board that pursuing disclaimer of interest is tantamount to bargaining in bad faith by the NHLPA. Yes, this tactic is a travesty, and completely circumvents the spirit of what is intended. The way the owners abused the salary cap, they should have a pretty good idea of what that’s like. And given their almost complete lack of respect for the NHLPA, they should have a pretty good idea what constitutes bad faith bargaining, too.
If you had told the owners during the last lockout that they would get their way with cost controls, see their revenues skyrocket and get rid of Bob Goodenow, they would have been tripping over each other to break out the most expensive champagne. And that’s precisely what happened. The only problem was that it created an environment where the league and the owners were under the impression that they had destroyed the players and their hold over them would be almost as tight as it was during the days of the C-Form.
And they still managed to mess it up. That doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to get it correct this time, but anytime the pendulum swings too far to one side, the other is going to strengthen its resolve. The reality is there is not a CBA out there that can make all 30 teams healthy and profitable because of the markets in which a good number of them are situated. But that doesn’t mean Bettman and the league won’t continue fighting for them, even to the point where they might even forget what they’re fighting for.
Almost everyone acknowledges that the league has already won. Now all that is to be determined is the margin of victory. That’s what everyone was saying seven years ago, too, but the NHL is intent on making those words prophetic this time. And that’s the main reason why 94 days into this lockout, we’re still not watching any hockey.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.