There they were at center ice, their sweaters pulled over their heads, slugging one another as the fans wondered when this silly fight would end so that the games could resume.
It is a tableau common enough to hockey. The difference last week was that the two combatants were the NHL Players' Association and the league's Board of Governors, who, blinded by their respective agendas, were locked in the first players' strike in the league's 75-year history. The walkout forced the NHL to scrap—or at least postpone—the last 30 games of the regular season, which was to have concluded on Sunday. The impasse also jeopardized the Stanley Cup playoffs, which were supposed to have begun on Wednesday of this week. It seemed appropriate that the strike began on April Fools' Day.
The Board of Governors had a chance to end the foolishness on Monday, when they met at New York City's posh Plaza Hotel—a strange place for the owners to be pleading poverty—to decide whether to accept a settlement proposal by the NHLPA. As SI went to press on Monday night, the negotiations were continuing. That the last stumbling block in the negotiations had to do with trading cards made the impasse seem all the more ridiculous.
Why would a league already having financial difficulties and concerned about maintaining its popularity risk losing millions of dollars and thousands of fans? Perhaps the best read on the situation was provided by Sergei Fedorov, a Detroit Red Wing center. When asked about the strike, he said, "I do not understand."
For the players, the strike was a declaration of independence. Under former NHLPA executive director Alan Eagle-son, who founded the union and led it for 24 years before resigning under pressure last year, the players were considered the lackeys of the owners. Management now is so out of tune with the players that Montreal Canadiens managing director Serge Savard, himself a former Canadiens defenseman, predicted a close strike vote. When Bob Goodenow, who became the NHLPA's executive director on Jan. 1, tallied the votes on April 1, the count was 560-4, and one of the nays was a mistake.
The owners were not so unified. Said one NHL governor, "The problem is that the owners are split. The newer owners are thinking creatively. The older guys want to do business as usual."
One of the old hard-liners is William Wirtz, the Chicago Blackhawks' owner and the NHL's chairman of the board, who said of Goodenow last Saturday, "He thinks we're suckers who will do anything because we like the game. But we owners aren't suckers." Wirtz, by the way, said that from his yacht in the Bahamas.
Claiming the league will lose $157 million over the next two years regardless of the strike's effects, NHL president John Ziegler said, also on Saturday, "The association's only answer to us is, 'That's your problem.' Well, the fact of the matter is, it is both of our problems, and we've asked them to help us."
The players said they were willing to help. Said Mike Gartner, right wing for the New York Rangers and a member of the players' negotiating committee, "We do want to have that wedding. We just don't want it to be a shotgun wedding."
Indeed, the two sides were reportedly close to agreement on free agency—the union will apparently settle for modest gains in this area—and other substantive issues. The union won modest gains on pension benefits and larger gains in arbitration procedures and playoff money. And after haggling on the length of a new collective bargaining agreement, the two sides agreed to three years, retroactive to last September.