Now that President Obama has weighed in on the NHL lockout, urging the owners and players to “do right by your fans,” I suppose its time that I should. As I’ve been telling my friends since September, this NHL season is toast.
When I first started writing for Sports Illustrated in 1978, I was the magazine’s hockey scribe. I know the league. I know what the players are like, and, to some extent, the owners. I know the passion of the fans. None of this has changed much over the years. At its heart it’s a sport where small-town men get paid huge bucks to do something they’d gladly do for free.
Enter Donald Fehr, head of the NHL Players Association, and Gary Bettman, NHL commissioner. I know these men, too. As it happens I met both of them for the first time in 1993. Bettman was the newly hired NHL president, plucked straight from the NBA, where he learned at the elbow of his boss, commissioner David Stern. Fehr was the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), where he learned at the elbow of his boss, Marvin Miller, the founder of that formidable union.
I found Fehr to be fiercely intelligent, humorless, arrogant, anti-social, and nagged by the belief that he should have been doing something more important with his life than representing millionaire athletes. He’d wanted to be a judge. He’d wanted to be a physicist. What drove him was an even fiercer belief that baseball owners — like most capitalists — were soul-sucking, lying dogs who deserved to be brought to heel. Fehr had somehow convinced himself that the MLBPA represented an oppressed minority, thus emboldening his take-no-prisoners approach to negotiation. Never mind that his constituents were making more than $1 million a year (this was1993, remember) and that the only truly oppressed professional players were the minor leaguers trying to make it to the big-time, who were not allowed in Fehr’s union. One more thing: Fehr wasn’t much of a sports fan. He wasn’t a hockey man at all.
And Bettman? Also fiercely intelligent, the kind of guy who liked to show you he was the smartest person in the room. Not to mention: arrogant, socially awkward, unyielding, and bent on the idea that he was so smart he could give ice hockey the national American footprint it never had. This, in turn, would lead to the NHL negotiating a hefty national television contract, modeled on the NBA’s, which would drive revenue for years to come. Thus, on Bettman’s watch, NHL franchises were either awarded to or relocated to Dallas, Florida, Atlanta, Anaheim, Nashville, Columbus, Ohio, Phoenix and Carolina — most of which are struggling today. Not hockey towns. One more thing: Bettman was also not, fundamentally, a hockey man. He liked to talk about his years as a hockey fan at Cornell, but his roots were in basketball and in law.
The idea of Fehr and Bettman sitting across the table and striking a compromise with each other for the good of the game is something I can’t wrap my head around. Their egos would be going at it like Ali-Frazier. And the fanciful notion these two might “do right by their fans…”? With all due respect, Mr. President… you make me laugh.
Bettman — now overseeing his third lockout in his 20 years as NHL commissioner, the only major sports league boss to ever cancel an entire season (2004-2005) — has never been anything but booed by hockey fans whenever he’s in public. They can’t stand him, and the feeling, I’m certain, is mutual. Fehr? He doesn’t even really like people, never mind hockey fans — a loyal, crazed, irrational lot if ever there was one. Fehr would rather be home reading a book.
And what are they fighting about? Two different things, it seems to me. Fehr is fighting for principle. Never go backward. Never give an inch. He learned that from Marvin Miller. Any restrictions on player freedoms — length of contract, salary cap, free agency — is a form of forced servitude and must be fought. Amen. Never mind that in the big picture NHL player salaries have soared from an average of $1.5 million a year in 2005-06 to $2.4 million last season, an increase of 60 percent over the course of the last six-year contract. This in an era of zero inflation and rising unemployment. Not bad. Ticket prices, by the way, have also outstripped inflation by a wide margin. The fans have been footing the bill.
Bettman, meanwhile, is fighting to make his league a viable, growing, profitable business — which it is not. According to Forbes magazine, which tracks the value of professional sports franchises, 18 of the 30 NHL teams lost money last year. Many believe that number is too high, but if a majority of NHL teams were profitable, Bettman would never have been able to get support for a lockout in the first place. No one makes money during a lockout. Some teams, however, lose less. A majority, apparently.
How will it all end? I have no idea. But I’m willing to bet the parties are not going to come to an agreement in time to salvage any part of this season. The people I feel for are the ushers, vendors, front office secretaries, and equipment managers who are out of work until this thing is settled. Maybe Bettman will step down. Maybe Fehr will. I hope they both do. Neither one really cares about the game, the actual game, that a lot of us love — including the players and most of the owners.
A pox on the houses of both these contemptuous men.