There they were at center ice, their sweaters pulled over their heads, slugging one another as the fans wondered when this silly fight would end so that the games could resume.
It is a tableau common enough to hockey. The difference last week was that the two combatants were the NHL Players' Association and the league's Board of Governors, who, blinded by their respective agendas, were locked in the first players' strike in the league's 75-year history. The walkout forced the NHL to scrap—or at least postpone—the last 30 games of the regular season, which was to have concluded on Sunday. The impasse also jeopardized the Stanley Cup playoffs, which were supposed to have begun on Wednesday of this week. It seemed appropriate that the strike began on April Fools' Day.
The Board of Governors had a chance to end the foolishness on Monday, when they met at New York City's posh Plaza Hotel—a strange place for the owners to be pleading poverty—to decide whether to accept a settlement proposal by the NHLPA. As SI went to press on Monday night, the negotiations were continuing. That the last stumbling block in the negotiations had to do with trading cards made the impasse seem all the more ridiculous.
Why would a league already having financial difficulties and concerned about maintaining its popularity risk losing millions of dollars and thousands of fans? Perhaps the best read on the situation was provided by Sergei Fedorov, a Detroit Red Wing center. When asked about the strike, he said, "I do not understand."
For the players, the strike was a declaration of independence. Under former NHLPA executive director Alan Eagle-son, who founded the union and led it for 24 years before resigning under pressure last year, the players were considered the lackeys of the owners. Management now is so out of tune with the players that Montreal Canadiens managing director Serge Savard, himself a former Canadiens defenseman, predicted a close strike vote. When Bob Goodenow, who became the NHLPA's executive director on Jan. 1, tallied the votes on April 1, the count was 560-4, and one of the nays was a mistake.
The owners were not so unified. Said one NHL governor, "The problem is that the owners are split. The newer owners are thinking creatively. The older guys want to do business as usual."
One of the old hard-liners is William Wirtz, the Chicago Blackhawks' owner and the NHL's chairman of the board, who said of Goodenow last Saturday, "He thinks we're suckers who will do anything because we like the game. But we owners aren't suckers." Wirtz, by the way, said that from his yacht in the Bahamas.
Claiming the league will lose $157 million over the next two years regardless of the strike's effects, NHL president John Ziegler said, also on Saturday, "The association's only answer to us is, 'That's your problem.' Well, the fact of the matter is, it is both of our problems, and we've asked them to help us."
The players said they were willing to help. Said Mike Gartner, right wing for the New York Rangers and a member of the players' negotiating committee, "We do want to have that wedding. We just don't want it to be a shotgun wedding."
Indeed, the two sides were reportedly close to agreement on free agency—the union will apparently settle for modest gains in this area—and other substantive issues. The union won modest gains on pension benefits and larger gains in arbitration procedures and playoff money. And after haggling on the length of a new collective bargaining agreement, the two sides agreed to three years, retroactive to last September.
But there were those trading cards, and it wasn't as trivial an issue as it seemed. The NHL gets some $16 million a year from four card companies, $11 million of which goes to the players, who use the money to finance their union. In a league that derives only $5.5 million from its U.S. television package with SportsChannel America, $16 million is a big chunk of change. Hockey cards are as popular in Canada as baseball cards are in the U.S. Why, a 1969-70 OPC card of Serge Savard is worth $30.
In other major sports, the players get 75% of revenues after the card companies take their cut; in hockey, they get 67%. The NHL owners want to renegotiate their slice of the pie, while the players seek to protect their share. Says Gartner, "Are the players going on strike because of endorsements and bubble gum cards? You can ask the same question on the other side. Are the owners allowing us to go on strike for that same issue? It's something that is extremely important to our players' association. Without it, the players' union does not exist."
The repercussions of the strike, the first called in any sport on the eve of the postseason, could be enormous. While the players make only a maximum of $25,000 in the playoffs, teams stand to lose about $500,000 a game if the playoffs are wiped out. In the case of the Red Wings, who own their arena and concessions operation, the loss could be as high as $16 million for a maximum of 16 home playoff games. Detroit owner Mike Hitch stepped down as a member of the owners' negotiating committee last weekend because he was frustrated by the lack of progress.
For its part, the union appeared to be in good enough financial shape to sit out for a while. And though there was speculation that the owners would try to use replacement players in the event of a long strike, such a move would be a joke.
Compounding the NHL's predicament was the fact that many of the large-market teams figured to do well in the playoffs. "This is the worst time for a strike," said the NHL governor. "The league could be getting all this good publicity that could really help the sport in the long run."
Before the strike a very real possibility existed that the Rangers, who had the league's best record, would make a long postseason run. Perhaps they would even meet the Los Angeles Kings, who might need a little luck to reach the finals, though stranger things have happened. Rangers versus Kings, Mark Messier versus Wayne Gretzky. Could the NHL ask for anything more?
Pity the poor Rangers, who last won the Stanley Cup in 1940 and have their best team in generations. "My heart is breaking," said Ranger general manager Neil Smith. Pity the poor Ranger fan. Paul Kandell is a 49-year-old salesman who has been rooting for the Rangers for 35 years. "Since I've been watching them, this might be the best team I've seen," said Kandell. "But, like everything with the Rangers, the strike was meant to be."
The day the strike was called, a Montreal fan paraded outside the Forum with a sign on a hockey stick that read LA NHL C'EST FINI. The NHL isn't finished. But it is wobbling. Trying to put the best possible spin on the situation, Gartner referred to the movie The Right Stuff: "When Chuck Yeager was first going through the sound barrier, they didn't know whether anyone could do it without blowing up. As that plane is going through the sound barrier, it starts shaking and shaking until finally it goes through the barrier, and then there's smooth riding after that. I think we're in that shaking process right now, and everybody's a little bit afraid."
Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But a smooth ride is one thing the owners, players and fans all want.