Chaos reigns in the NHL
The Coyotes dispute, NHLPA militancy and a rules rollback darken the future
If the Maple Leafs sue the NHL, sports ownership rules will be destroyed
The NHL's warring factions should look at how the NFL accomodated the AFL
Not to go all bookhead on you, my much-appreciated readers, but the current state of chaos in the NHL brings to mind a quote from the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:
"Insanity in individuals is rare, but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule."
If we consider the NHL as a group, Nietzsche couldn't be more insightful. The league seems constantly engaged in a series of epic, insane battles predicated on another Nietzsche observation: "There are no facts, only interpretations."
With training camps set to open in just over a week, there has been no resolution to the dispute over who owns the Phoenix Coyotes, where they might play the 2009-10 season, or even whether the iconic Wayne Gretzky will still be a part owner or coach.
Approaching a fifth month since owner-of-record Jerry Moyes put the team into bankruptcy and owner-wannabe Jim Balsillie tendered a $212.5 million bid (with the condition that he be allowed to move the Coyotes into Southern Ontario), this matter has reached the point of legal absurdity with party after party making outrageous claims, threats and allegations, and the NHL vowing that if bankruptcy court judge Redford T. Baum rules against its wishes, it will appeal to the highest courts in the land.
That's interesting, given that Balsillie has also vowed to fight on even though the NHL has disapproved him. He was once unanimously approved to buy the Penguins, but has since fallen into grave disfavor because the NHL now believes he is deficient in both character and integrity, a charge that could comfortably be sustained in relation to a steady stream of owners and want-to-bes that spans nearly the entire history of the league.
On Wednesday, Judge Baum promised to give -- before the season starts -- his interpretations on a variety of issues (including whether a person can own a team without being approved by the league, the NHL can offer to buy a team while attempting to scuttle someone else's bid, and a team can move while it is still under a seemingly valid lease). No matter what Baum rules, he isn't likely to end the court battle. That will seemingly go on for decades.
As I first reported here on June 4, and now seemingly confirmed by court documents, the Toronto Maple Leafs are intent on exercising their perceived one-team, one-vote veto regarding their right to protect their territory from all comers. The Leafs will sue the NHL and its individual members if there is any attempt to override that right. By doing so, the Leafs would open the league to a very real charge of antitrust both in Canada -- where the NHL has told the Competition Committee there is no single-veto option, only a simple majority vote (which the committee would investigate as a monopoly practice) -- and the United States.
Simply put, the Leafs' interpretation of a line in the NHL constitution, along with their willingness to use their nuclear option, could well open the door to the destruction of pro sports ownership provisions as we know them. That's a stunning and inexplicable irony considering that the NHL has been spending millions in court to defeat Balsillie's attempt to pretty much do the same thing.
Then we have the National Hockey League Players Association.
Indeed, the players' relationship with each other regarding how the NHLPA does business and with whom is now in serious question after the surprising dismissal of Paul Kelly as head of the union. In what appears to be a coup by more militant factions, Kelly was dismissed for no-yet stated reason. His ouster and the resignation of player affairs director Glenn Healy threw into chaos the PA's leadership and the notion that the players would forge a "partnership" with the NHL to move the game and its business aspects forward, especially with a new collective bargaining session approaching.
It's impossible to say where the PA goes from here, but given that it's an organization that has been running through executive directors faster than the New York Islanders can sign goaltenders, the future does not look bright, especially if the militants want a director who will challenge Commissioner Gary Bettman to a fight over perceived injustices in the current CBA.
If Bettman does anything well as a sports boss, it's preparing and executing a battle plan. He seems to like nothing more than a good fight, having instigated and prevailed (for the most part) in battles with the players, former player bosses, on-ice officials, head office employees, fans (especially those who thought the 1999 Stanley Cup Final might have been tainted by a questionable goal) and the media. In truth, one might easily interpret Bettman's tenure as an endless series of confrontations over an ever-increasing number of issues and in a variety of venues. The PA going all Braveheart on him will likely lead to yet another prolonged work stoppage, an action that could well result in the demise of some franchises and a subsequent thinning of the player ranks.
And then we have the officiating mess.
The resignation of Stephen Walkom was spun as simply a case of a former referee who, at 46, missed the on-ice action and wanted to get back to it before it was too late. A more insidious interpretation is that Walkom, who took the job of director with the proviso that he return to the ice if his new role was not to his liking, got tired of trying to maintain a standard that was not only difficult to uphold, but forever changing.
Walkom's difficulty was on display during last spring's playoffs when rules and procedures that had been dutifully put in place after the 2004-05 lockout seemed to be either ignored or overridden by the NHL's Hockey Operations Department. The free skating and open ice that came to the game largely from the player ranks and efforts of a committee conceived and headed by Brendan Shanahan, began to disappear only to be replaced by more hitting (especially from behind and to the head), interference (especially around the crease and in the corners), and hits on goaltenders as crease-crashing again became the norm.
Much of the mayhem occurred after hockey ops director Colin Campbell made on-ice rulings that dialed back previous interference standards, and some supplementary discipline decisions that lowered penalties for hitting from behind, crashing the crease and blows to the head. It's uncertain whether Campbell ordered the changes or was ordered to make them. Nothing was "officially changed" regarding the rule book, but it's a given that teams recognized the new interpretations and are "bulking" up for the new season. It's also apparent that recent rules to enhance the game and protect the players are being curtailed in order to sate the blood-lust of fans and meet the business "challenge" from more violent sports like football and mixed martial arts.
Walkom, who took the job determined to be his own man and enforce the rules as written, won't say as much, but his resignation can easily be interpreted as saying it for him.
There is more to the league's ball of confusion, but the pattern is clear enough and it causes one to wonder what the NHL is attempting to accomplish and whether it has the leadership to succeed.
Think back to when the established NFL was challenged by the upstart AFL in a battle for what many thought would be the future of pro football in the US. After being brought nearly to their financial knees in a series of ugly disputes that benefited no one, enlightened leadership in the NFL opened the door to the "rebels" and brought the rival league into the fold. The result was not the "old guard" prevailing in endless court battles with millions of dollars in legal fees, but an inclusion of bright men with a vision much larger than the status quo. Out of that came the most successful merger in sports history and the continued growth of what is now the most successful league of all time.
It took a certain amount of courage and leadership to accomplish that, especially when the old guard felt the renegades weren't playing by the rules, and the renegades felt the established league was peopled by men who couldn't be trusted. But in the end, there was compromise. They all became, if not friends, at least partners who knew the value of keeping friends close and enemies even closer. Those who didn't embrace at least became fabulously wealthy for the experience.
The NHL could learn from that bit of history, and from Dwight D. Eisenhower, a philosopher of a very different kind than Nietzsche as well as a man who knew a little something about battle: "You don't lead by hitting people over the head," he said, "that's assault, not leadership."
That's also today's NHL and NHLPA. Where they are taking the game appears to be a very different place than where it has been since the last lockout, but one has every reason to doubt they know exactly where they are going.
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