Insights and Insults: NHL Lockout
SI.com writers trade takes and shots on hot hockey topics
Dater: players I've talked to say they really want to kick Gary Bettman's butt
Muir: If Bettman fails to get a deal close to what the owners want, he's out
Agreed: The dangers of playing in Europe are still too risky for Sidney Crosby
Our aggravated scribes ponder how long we'll be without the NHL and toss around non-CBA-related stuff.
Al Muir: First off AD, I'd like to thank you for skipping that Carly Rae Jepsen karaoke contest -- I know how many hours you slaved over your choreography -- to spend a few minutes talking about the lockout. Things are looking grimmer than that new NBC Matthew Perry "comedy." There's some gulf between the two sides.
Adrian Dater: I find it suspicious that I couldn't get tickets to Ms. Jepson's contest because they told me a "Mr. Allan Muir has requested a block of 200 seats." But I'm afraid I couldn't hear your initial inquiry anyway, since I'm too busy listening right now to a conference call between the local Denver roller derby team's general manager and the media about their next match. This is my new beat for the coming few months....
Muir: Lucky man you are. Big flat-track fan myself -- what up, Lone Star Assassins! -- but word is I'm getting the middle school marching band beat. I got a good lead on a band candy scandal. I'm gonna bust that thing wide open. Hold page one!
Dater: OK, let's get down to brass tacks: I had an angry day today. One of my favorite movies is Wall Street, and one of the top 50 great lines from Gordon Gekko in the film is: "Never get emotional about stocks -- lousy judgment." Being a journalist, I try to take that to heart when covering stories. Don't get emotional about your subject -- lousy judgment. But it's still hugely aggravating that we're into ANOTHER NHL lockout.
Muir: Tough not to get riled up, AD. It's either anger or apathy and neither of us is comfortably numb with this insanity just yet. What's interesting to me is how my feelings have started to shift. In 2004, I was totally on board with the owners. This time, I found myself sympathizing with the union, for a couple of reasons. Any problems with overspending during the just-expired deal were strictly the fault of the teams or the league, and the players shouldn't have to surrender money they bargained for in good faith to solve those problems. And I really admired the creativity that went into their proposal. It's not exactly the "shared sacrifice" they've painted it to be, but it had the fundamentals to be the cycle-breaker the industry needs.
But lately I've been thinking that something this bold should have been brought to the table much, much sooner to give it any real chance of gaining traction -- and remember, the timing of the talks has been at the discretion of the union. I get what Donald Fehr was trying to do while familiarizing himself with the game, the issues and most importantly, the players, but that 18-month process killed too much time.
Dater: Mind you, this is the "columnist" portion of me talking. As long as I'm allowed to have an opinion, I'm coming back down firmly in the players' camp. And I was on the general side of the owners last time -- despite that meaning that I was on the same philosophic page as Jeremy Jacobs.
Gary Bettman has said repeatedly over the years that the new CBA "worked for everybody." He bragged over and over how much money the league was raking in. Now, he's in the unfortunate position of trying to plead poverty again on behalf of his owners. He's a smart man -- he must know down deep how foolish he's looking. Anybody who wants to Google my name and Bettman's will find positive stories I've written about some of the things he's done for the game. But this time? He's in the losing corner, and I suspect he knows it. Talking about things like airplane fuel and -- oh, this will haunt him big-time -- the cost of team massage therapists as reasons why teams need a financial lift from the players, all of whom were signed to contracts that the OWNERS AGREED TO. I think the players are going to roll the owners and Bettman in this one, I really do.
Muir: This is going to be a war of attrition, and the players are no more prepared to win than any previous union. Sure, NHL 13 just came out, so that should keep them from getting bored for a couple months, at least. But in the end they'll all meander their way to the same realization: principle is nice, but I want to play hockey. Not in the KHL or the Allsvenskan or the Dr. Pepper Starcenter men's league. In the NHL. And they aren't going to outlast the owners. Not gonna happen. Yeah, the league's wearing the black hat, but Gary has never much cared how he looks. For him, it's always been about making the best deal. That first offer was a laugher, but he made a fair point when he noted that it was similar to the ones used by the NBA and NFL on the path to their CBAs. So as callous as it was, it's an effective approach.
Dater: To argue your solidarity issue -- I pointed out in my lockout timeline (2004-05 vs. now) why the players are much better positioned to sit out a whole year this time and the owners will be stuck with 41 empty regular-season dates in their arenas, missing huge paychecks from the Winter Classic and the playoffs and even more TV money down the road. If they're such smart businessmen, they'll realize that's a loser in the end. Finally, keep this in mind: Many of the league's top players are young and early in their 8-to-15-year contracts. So what if they miss one season of a 12-year deal? That's different from 2004-05, when much of the league's elite were older guys who were at the ends of their contracts and started to really miss the money.
Muir: I think you're really on to something. But if you think the owners are less entrenched in their position, you're bananas. Was that vote of support Bettman mentioned really unanimous? I'm guessing there were at least a couple hands raised begrudgingly, if at all, and I'm sure there will be some second thoughts down the road as those empty dates start hammering away at the owners' bank accounts. But any dissension will be internal, and not enough to force the group to seriously reconsider the revenue-sharing option. I wish I was wrong, but I just don't see it happening.
Speaking of things I don't see happening, did you catch Bettman's reaction when he was asked about the players possibly putting the cap on the table? Say what you want about his oily speaking manner, but I don't think I've ever seen the man visibly caught off guard. Might have been the only smile of the day.
Dater: Fehr did not rule that out! This could be really, really nasty. But I'm still clinging, however tenuously, to my prediction all along: We'll have hockey back by December 15 at the latest. Think about it: It'll be the dead of winter by then, the prospect of huge Winter Classic dollars will be in the crisp, cold air and Bettman/owners will salivate enough over them to make a deal.
I see the endgame being the players agreeing to a deal that lessens their percentage over time, with the hope that, say, 50 percent of revenue by 2017 could be worth more in hard dollars than 57 percent of the existing $3.3 billion. If revenues are $4 billion in 2017 and the players' share is "only" 50 percent, they'll still take in nearly $200 million more in total dollars. And they'll have more incentive to grow the game over the term of those years. The players will always be the best vehicle to grow revenues. They're the people fans come to see -- not Jeremy Jacobs sitting up in his walled-off suite sipping a wine spritzer.
Muir: That's a lot if "ifs" and "hopes," buddy. The NHL needs simple, definable percentages, not "the league is going to make sooo much money in the future it'll be just like we're taking a pay cut!" Ultimately I think that's what it'll come down to: a clearly drawn drop from 57 percent of HRR to 49 or 50, accomplished over time in a way that won't call for a drastic increase in escrow to the players or force cap-ceiling teams to scuttle large chunks of their rosters in order to get under the new number. It's the only path that gets the league where it wants to be while minimizing the players' inevitable pain.
Dater: One more point to my belief that the players will win and are very well unified: They have the same bogeyman against whom to stake their cause now in Bettman as the owners did in 2004-05 with Bob Goodenow. The players, at least the ones I've talked to, really want to kick Bettman's ass this time. They have a true rallying cry. If that means cutting off their noses to spite their faces financially, I think they're willing to do it. I think many of them have the same ferocity of desire to want to kick Bettman out of the game as the owners did in booting Goodenow.
And Fehr is an expert at rallying players to a cause. The players fell apart under Goodenow last time because they knew in their hearts they were overpaid, and he started to become too cloistered from the meat-and-potatoes core of his constituency. Not the case with Fehr, who really has reached out to the players and gotten them to want to fight for him. That's a HUGE difference. I get the absolute sense that the owners are nowhere near as unified as the last time, and someone is going to crack come December or so.
Muir: You keep talking about a union win and kicking Gary's ass ... what form do you think that takes? You actually believe the owners are going to buckle and agree to a broader, more impactful commitment to revenue sharing? Hey, I'd love to see that more than you'd like to see Ace Frehley back in the Space Man makeup, but Jeremy Jacobs and Ed Snider and their cronies have no interest in pulling any more Benjamins out of their fat stacks to prop up Columbus and Florida and Phoenix.
Dater: Well, at least we agree on this: Ed Snider and JJ and the ghost of Bill Wirtz don't give a rat's patootie about Florida or Columbus and never have -- except for getting their original cut of their expansion fees. Therein lies the rub: Bettman and the owners this time, at least, are caught red-handed in their canard attempt to frame this lockout as one necessary to help all franchises stay financially healthy. They said they got that last time -- just watch this YouTube video here if you don't believe me. Now, the jig is up. The owners are exposed for what they are: interested in only their own self-interest. Period.
Muir: Is that a pungent mix of fresh turnip and truck grease you're wearing? Since when have owners NOT been motivated by their own self-interest? I'm not saying there aren't great guys who love their players and place a high priority on winning, but come on. If they thought they could get away with doing all that and paying out just 40 or 30 or 20 percent of HRR, it would already be done. These guys didn't get to be team-buying rich through regular acts of financial benevolence. They got there by making more deals that weighed heavily in their favor than not. I wish I could see it your way. I think the game is better off if something based on the players' plan carries the day, but I just can't envision a scenario where the owners splinter and send Bettman out to make that kind of deal.
OK, so how about we close with a lightning round. Ready? If this thing ends with a major union victory, does Bettman clear out his desk?
Dater: No, Bettman hangs on either way, but his "legacy" such as it is, will be tarnished no matter what coming out of this lockout.
Muir: The $8 million he banks each year is the only legacy he's worried about. But if he fails to get something close to the deal that's currently on the table, I think he and Bill Daly skate off into the horizon when it's over.
Dater: Should Sidney Crosby play in Europe during the lockout?
Muir: I think he will. Listening to him last week, it's clear he wants to play ... and that he doesn't care if that means some poor schlub has to turn in his Magnitogorsk sweater and go back to working in the steel mill. That's some cold, mercenary-style shizz, Sid. But you asked if he *should* play. And I think that answer is no. First, I can't imagine him being able to get his new contact insured -- it's just too expensive, especially with his history. And the hockey over there may be softer but it's hardly no-contact. You know he'd be a target. It's just not worth it.
Dater: I agree. Keep Sid back at home, not donning those masculinity-challenged Euro team getups with 25 advertisements all over them. Besides, it's not going to help his game much, other than the pure exercise of it. And yep, if he gets seriously hurt there, good luck getting your insurance money back from, say, a Russian with, we might imagine, shady ties to the financial worlds of Moscow.
Muir: Shane Doan got a no-move clause in his last-minute extension, but the Coyotes have yet to secure theirs with Greg Jamison still struggling to lock down a deal in Phoenix. Do you think the potential empty dates at Jobing.com Arena help or hurt Jamison as he tries to dot the i's with Glendale City Council?
Dater: Is there a city council as well-known to hockey fans as Glendale's? I think not. Honestly, I really do think putting a man on the moon wasn't as hard as closing a deal in Glendale. Just get the darned thing signed already and let's play some hockey. Oh yeah, whoops, none to play in Glendale right now, regardless. I don't know, they've managed to keep a team around in Glendale with empty buildings before, so a few more months of nobody sitting in the seats of Jobing.com Arena shouldn't be so bad.
Muir: I'm thinking this could really help Jamison. This is Glendale's Ghost of Christmas Future moment when they find out what life would be like with that rink sitting idle. If they notice a calamitous decline in area businesses, then hockey supporters on the council have all the bullets they need. Of course, if it's the same ol' same ol'...
OK, last one: P.K. Subban. Lots of rumors swirling about talks between the Habs and Flyers and maybe one other team. Any chance that Marc Bergevin cuts ties with his most exciting player once we have a new CBA in place?
Dater: No way, P.K. stays a Hab. Philly's still mad after failing to get Shea Weber, so they want to try to heist PK out of Montreal. Not if a deal doesn't include a Couturier going back, and no way do I trade that kid if I'm Paul Holmgren.
Muir: With you there, although if there was any way to pry Couturier away from the Flyers, I'd throw in one-year supply of Schwartz's smoked meat. My son just switched to center and that's one of the guys he's been keying on in repeats as he tries to learn the position. That kid Couturier's a beauty.
Dater: OK, Al, see you in December when all my predictions will have come to fruition. Meantime, I've got to get back to mastering my glossary of terms for the next roller derby match. Wait, here's one: "fishnet burn." Ouch. I mean, oh, interesting. Sign me up!