Not Deja Vu All Over Again
Slowly but surely, this lockout is starting to differentiate itself from the last one.
That, at least in theory, could be bad news for NHL owners and players.
Last time, there was a sense in a substantial corner of the hockey world that honestly and passionately believed the fight was about levelling the playing field, about giving smaller market teams a greater opportunity to compete and keep their star players, about stopping the financial bleeding in some sectors.
Yes, there was a considerable portion of the hockey universe that didn't believe that was the core of the disagreement at all. But it formed the central debate in the public forum, and for some fans, at least, there was belief that it was a fight worth having.
Nobody outside of the NHL board of governors or the NHLPA believes that now.
Nobody other than NHL owners and players believes that any good can come of this battle, that fans in any city will benefit in any way, that there is any kind of moral high ground to be had here. There are some strident voices on both sides claiming the owners are in the right or that the players are, but a guess would be that the vast majority of hockey fans don't identify a good guy in any of this and certainly cannot imagine a result that would make the game cheaper for fans, more enjoyable or more exciting.
And therein lies the difference between this lockout and the last one. You can believe one side or the other is in the right, but there has yet to be a voice able to articulate any way in which this fight is good for fans or the game or the competition.
Maybe this won't matter in the end. Maybe fans will flood back like lemmings and the NHL and NHLPA will smirk at how easy it was to get back to normal.
But its starting to feel like it won't be quite that easy. More and more the NHL and its endless labour troubles seem to be setting it aside from the mainstream of pro sports, apart from other leagues where owners and unions seem to have found ways to establish better working relationships than has been the case in the NHL. The NHL and NHLPA are starting to look like the couple who snipe viciously at each other at social events without realizing others find their behavior unseemly and boorish.
It feels like even when this ends it will be in the first paragraph of every hockey story for the six months that follow. Neither Gary Bettman nor Don Fehr is looking like a statesman or a person whose sole ambition is to cut a deal and get the games rolling.
It feels like the poison between the owners and players is starting to seep into the fabric of the hockey industry. The players seem focussed on demonizing Bettman, which will do neither they or the business any good in the long run. Jimmy Devellano's outburst, meanwhile, perhaps revealed the cynical way in which some NHL owners regard the hired hands. The fanciful notion of a partnership is dead, and it seems these two sides will go on hating each other even if a deal can be reached to save this season.
There's also a sense that the NHL is flirting with irrelevancy, more in the U.S. than in Canada. Perhaps it's just the fabulous post-season baseball is enjoying, with all four division series matchups going the limit. The NFL is into the meat of its season, the NBA has started playing exhibition games and then there's the NHL, idle and ridiculous and run by league and union executives who seem to believe they're bulletproof and are thus more dedicated to standing their ground than negotiating.
So you begin to put all those factors together. No belief that there is anything in this fight for the fans or the game. An unsettling element of spite and disrespect on both sides despite the overall growth of the business and the wealth of players since the last lockout. Exciting times for other sports, with baseball, football and basketball having found ways to solve their differences and thus perfectly positioning themselves to crowd hockey out of the larger conversation.
The end result may be different from '04-05. How that might be its tough to say. Or perhaps the NHL and NHLPA will again be able to get away with defacing the game and the business without any serious repercussions.
But the feel, the atmosphere says this is different this time around, that more people are turning away in either disgust or simply because there are other things to do and watch.
The NHL and NHLPA deserve to be punished and punished severely for doing this to the game without a compelling reason to do so. Both sides are equally appalling.
Bettman, more committed to keeping the Coyotes in Phoenix than making sure at all costs that this season got started on time, has failed the game and destroyed any claim he might have had to being a commissioner for anything but the owners and their avarice. He's getting kudos from no one for running the lockout play again and has sentenced himself to owning an unenviable legacy. Perhaps he cares not.
Fehr, meanwhile, has proven to be of nearly no value whatsoever as far as ending the cycle of vicious labour squabbles. He's knows almost nothing about the game, he's tired and worn after too many baseball battles and offers nothing new. He's a continuation of the Goodenow regime after a brief break. He's a short-term leader and old-school thinker for a union that desperately requires a visionary.
At least last time there was an effort to fix the game itself while the lockout dragged on, which allowed the two sides to promote the "new" NHL when the '04-05 lockout was over.
That's not in play this time around, and there's no sense it will be, no sense that there's an individual like Brendan Shanahan willing to look beyond the fray and see a greater collective need.
Instead, the NHL is being petty, shutting down an L.A. Kings blogger, while the union wastes everyone's time with pointless and unsuccessful labour board challenges in Quebec and Alberta.
No, no one's thinking of fixing the game right now. The NHL game as played in the post-season last spring was, for the most part, ghastly, and it will return in the same form at the end of this lockout, a ping-pong game in which shot-blocking is more valued than skill and imagination.
So no, this lockout isn't exactly the same as the last one. There are no shining knights, no grand principles to be fought for, no attention to the needs of the game itself, nothing in it for the fan. The owner of the Stanley Cup champions wants out of the business. The owner of the Edmonton Oilers tried to blackmail the city by threatening to move the team. A player who used to be one of the game's top marquee attractions mutters indiocies about not honouring his contract and staying in Russia. Other players ignore the obvious negative impact of stealing jobs in Europe. Only one player, Anaheim's Bobby Ryan, has spoken his mind in a reasoned way without being an obvious partisan. Not a single owner has done likewise.
Just negatives everywhere. There are few words of compromise or understanding. No signs of honor. Just hate and extremism and bitterness, threats and hypocrisy, distrust and greed and total disregard of the sport on both sides.
When it's over, both sides will claim they have healed all wounds, and everyone will know it's a gigantic lie.
All that's left to see is how long it goes, and whether the reaction of the customers when it's over will be any different.