Hockey’s not dead, it’s just the NHL that’s digging its own grave
Reports dropped Saturday that the NHLPA agreed to grant each of the locked out players a $10,000 stipend in light of the fact that they have now missed four paychecks as a result of the labor dispute. (Boy, I sure would have liked one of those when I was between jobs … and I’m sure that the thousands of arena workers and other league employees who are missing paychecks or seeing reduced pay would like one of those as well.) The benefits of unionized work are in action for the NHL’s players, but they might not be for long, since the existence of the league itself is at stake in these negotiations, and no one has blinked yet.
Entire companies and organizations can vanish due to labor disputes if no one budges. While it’s not a completely comparable situation, it is labor circumstances that brought the well-known and seemingly ubiquitous Hostess Brands to its knees last month. The baker’s union went on strike, and without a foundation to negotiate, the company was forced to liquidate.
The main difference here is that Hostess sold a product that was steadily declining in sales over a period of years and therefore had little financial wiggle room to meet the union’s demands. With the NHL’s product on a global upswing with record-setting revenue prior to this labor dispute, the stalls to negotiations and unwillingness to compromise make less and less sense with each passing day. My past articles on this situation have all been written on the supposition that an entire season will not be lost this time around, or that if the entire season is lost, the labor issues will be resolved before the traditional time that the NHL season ends for the summer.
Perhaps I was naive.
The constant “ups and downs” of the negotiation process have left me (along with countless others) feeling rather jaded. Speculation has begun that there will not be a resolution by next summer, and in that case, the league will most definitely have a harder time getting advertisers and other moneymakers to return. It could even risk losing its stars and supporting cast: its players. All my vitriol and various sentiments as a fan seem wasted now, of course, because in the end it might not matter.
The latest meeting will bring a small group of team owners actually face-to-face with members of the NHLPA. It would seem to a casual observer such an obvious move to facilitate understanding between the two parties that it is literally shocking that it hasn’t happened more often. The meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 4, and is expected to include the Penguins’ Ron Burkle, the Bruins’ Jeremy Jacobs, the Flames’ Murray Edwards, the Leafs’ Larry Tanenbaum and the Lightning’s Jeff Vinik.
Yesterday, before the meeting was confirmed, statements came out from Sabres’ player representative Jordan Leopold essentially referring to the proposed meeting as a joke, with his teammate Thomas Vanek referring to the meeting as a publicity stunt. If the players believe going into the meeting that the intention is not to negotiate but to give the public an illusion of negotiation, it seems fair to say that little will get done regardless of what the owners bring to the table. Since Leopold is not attending, one can hope that the NHLPA members who do choose to attend will be more open-minded.
In short: this lockout is a roller coaster, and no one seems to want to get back to work enough to stop the ride. But I’ve been repeating that for months now. You get it.
What’s great about the NHL fan community is that without NHL games to attend, other hockey is rushing in to fill the void, particularly minor leagues and junior leagues, which can be found in almost every part of the United States and Canada.
The AHL in particular has created a joyous home-away-from-home for NHL fans who have been unable to visit their usual barns. Since every AHL teams has an NHL affiliate, there is also an element of built-in loyalty, even if the AHL affiliate is a long way from its NHL brother. (For example, the Anaheim Ducks’ affiliate is the Norfolk Admirals–and they’re in Virginia.) However, fan sentiment, such as a couple of these letters to Yahoo!’s Puck Daddy posted last week, is increasingly including praise for the “lesser” league — not because it could be considered as skilled as the European leagues to which many NHLers have defected, but because the fan experience is what American and Canadian fans expect when they attend a hockey game. The same can be said of those of us in college towns who have the privilege of seeing NCAA hockey, and now we have more time on our hands to see it with the NHL on hiatus. It’s not the same–but it’s damn good.
The experience and community is what matters to hockey fans more than the name of the team or the name of the player. We can take comfort in this by realizing that hockey is not dead. No matter how long this takes, we can still have a bit of what we want. The NHL will need to continue to create good experiences when and if it returns to keep its head above water. If you’re paying attention at all, you know by this point that it’s going to be a tall mountain to climb.