Kukla's Korner

The Malik Report

And so the war truly begins

From the land of sniffles and boogers: The NHL's owners' lockout begins cutting into regular-season games today, and I'm still baffled by the whole concept.

It hurts "average folks" the most--the people who depend on 41 game nights' worth of income as arena workers, the people who work in concessions, security, as ushers, ticket-takers, memorabilia-sellers, in broadcasting games and in teams' front offices, and it's obviously devastating to the local bars, restaurants, parking garages and merchandise shops that make their living from hockey...

And in engaging in its third lockout over Gary Bettman's tenure and the second in eight years, the NHL may be counting on the "average fan" to return and spend money at games, but I don't think they have any idea as to how much they're damaging their relationship with the backbone of their sport--die-hard fans who live and breathe hockey, and are generally willing to back up their passion for a sporting pastime that becomes so much more than a hobby (see: a passion, an identity-defining way of life, a community that helps us feel like we're part of something bigger than ourselves, and can get by together) that the die-hards are willing to pay, and pay handsomely, to support their passion.

Why would anyone truly want to invest not only their time, energy and money, but also their hearts in following teams and players when the league chooses to burn down the village in order to save it every eight-to-ten years, essentially telling fans that the sport is breaking up with its most ardent constituents for the "good of the game," promising to fix the economic issues plaguing it "for good," and then going through the same damn process of holding fans and those who depend on the sport hostage again because the "fix" wasn't idiot-proof enough?

If anything, this lockout is perhaps the most soul-drainingly stupid because we all know that it is about greed and nothing else. The owners sacrificed the 2004-2005 season to get their salary cap with an ironclad link to a fixed percentage of league-wide revenues, and now their demand that players pay somewhere between a sixth and a quarter of their promised paychecks back for the privilege of playing is simply a post-recession demand for a retroactive bailout, an insistence that the "talent" who bring fans to rinks--where fans are charged ticket prices determined almost totally irrespective of player payroll expenditures, or team performances (see: it's supply and demand, plain and simple)--give back to the owners, now and in the future, for being paid "too well" when the economic crash put an end to the every-year increases in franchises' equitable bank values regardless of how much money they were losing on a revenues-vs-expenses basis.

It's about the billionaires crying poor, and yet the billionaires still insisting that what is obviously an incredibly flawed 30-team business model under the just-expired CBA is absolutely rock-solid, save the whole, "Paying the players 'too much'" line.
As I've said previously, I cannot begrudge the players in this battle. I understand that their unwillingness to literally surrender promised money and contractual mobility to the point of accepting the owners' lockout lumps them in there with the Fifty Shades of Blame concept, and that there are no "good guys" in any battle where a squabble over $3.3 billion of *fans'* disposable incomes and partisan passions is involved, but they're not the ones who decided to withhold their services, and they're not the ones who locked the doors, not this time or the last time.

But the players were faced with an impossible negotiating scenario as they weren't even able to access those 100,000-plus pages of independently-audited team books until July 30th, long after the NHL had chosen to not only demand an immediate decrease in the players' share of hockey-related revenues, but also to redefine what constituted HRR, so they offered the only solution that made sense given that both they and we knew that neither party would likely budge from their initial proposals (see: NHL demanding an idiot-proofing of the 2005 CBA via enormous concessions in salaries and player mobility; NHLPA demanding no "giving at the office," nor a rehashing of a CBA that clearly does not address the fundamental inequities between the most profitable and most insolvent franchises) for some time.

The players wanted to keep playing under the current CBA until a new one could be negotiated, essentially arguing that arguing over percentages of still-being-collected revenues made the most sense for a sport that is indeed permanently damaging its reputation thanks to this third owners' lockout, and arguing that the business as well as "the fans" might be better served by watching hockey this fall.

It's what the Canadian arm of the UAW chose to engage in while negotiating with the Big 3 recently, despite the inevitability of concessions in an industry whose product's prices are much more directly related to labor costs than that of professional sports:  in an industry where Canadian parts make up significant chunks of the vast majority North American-built cars, and Canadian-made American cars are among the best-selling vehicles for all three brands, the CAW chose to not screw the rest of North America over, and they kept working.

Now things aren't exactly analogous here given that the NHLPA's members are essentially performance artists whose access to the best performance venues in their sporting world has been cut off due to arguments with those who provide the infrastructure to promote their artists' performances. But they wanted to play here instead of doing something that inevitably makes them look terrible in heading over to Europe to ensure that they don't face the same kind of career-ending rust that a season without hockey ensured for a generation of Hall-of-Famers after the last lockout.

Regrettably, Gary Bettman and the Board of Governors, as Jimmy Devellano revealed in what was perhaps a, "Crazy, or crazy like a fox?" stating of the owners' conviction of belief that they, the sport, and "the fans" will all be better off by a nuclear negotiating strategy and another crushing of the players' union, regardless of how many games or how many seasons it takes to mash players into pulp, are already likely to wipe out half the season, if not the entirety of the 2012-2013 season. The owners, gag order in terms of CBA-related comments included, have a clear and obvious track record of consciously choosing to follow the lead of a commissioner, deputy commissioner (Bill Daly) and outside legal counsel (Proskauer Rose and Bob Batterman) who believe that the only sane thing to do when you can't get your way is to ask fans to endure a season-long "break" while the billionaires bend the millionaires to their will, because we are somehow supposed to trust that everything will be made permanently better, "Fo' reals this time."

As someone who's been through three of these, all under Bettman's reign, and especially given that the NHL is insisting that the current CBA addresses the league's 30-team business model just fine, minus the percentage-of-the-HRR pie going-to-the-players part that an entire season was sacrificed to attain (and a CBA that was essentially written by Bill Daly and the Proskauer Rose crew while Bettman and then-NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow were out of the room, with PA turncoat Ted Saskin nodding all the way), I cannot offer an ounce of sympathy to the owners...

And again, while the players are not blameless, at least Donald Fehr has been honest and forthright with the media and honest and forthright with the fans, despite whoever runs the PA's PR department's mistake in suggesting that players employ the same, "This is for the good of the game" line when they should instead be saying, "Look, we just want to get paid what we've been legally promised, plus or minus reasonable escrow deductions, and we don't want to be back here talking about no NHL hockey being played six-to-eight years from now."

That is my bottom line in terms of sympathy, too--given the NHL's track record here, six-to-eight years from now, why should die-hard fans like myself believe that the league is going to do anything less than burn down the village in order to $ave it for a fourth time? In labor negotiations, it seems like Gary Bettman, Bill Daly, the lawyers and the owners whose agendas the Board of Governors represent know no other way to operate.

So the game is being held hostage again, the players cannot perform, the owners have decided that they'd rather have 43% of nothing for a long as it takes to crank up their percentage of the HRR pie (deductions excluded; as both Elliotte Friedman and Fehr have pointed out, the reality of the situation is that the NHL makes more than 43% of true league-wide revenues already) a non-season down the line, both the billionaires and millionaires look like greedy bastards, and probably are as much, and the "average man or woman" who makes their living from the sport is looking at a cold winter without work.

Just as importantly, the NHL is permanently damaging its relationship with its most ardent, hard-core and high-spending supporters, the people for whom hockey truly is life, and it simply doesn't care. I don't know if Chairman Mao realizes incredibly dangerous it is to engage in this kind of repeat performance as a matter of course.

Even as I've been battling this super-virus that will continue to prevent me from updating this blog on a regular basis until next week--and again, I'm so sorry about this mess--at the earliest...

I can tell you that I've been stunned by the number of die-hard Red Wings fans who've stated that they're done with the game once and for all, have noted that not just anger, but real rage directed toward the league and the owners, Mike Ilitch included, is venomous, vicious and boiling over, and that from those who are waiting for the Wings to refund their season-ticket money to those who've already spent thousands to attend the Winter Classic and Hockeytown Winter Festival which will be canceled for negotiating leverage's sake are pretty bloody close to joining Chris Chelios, circa 1994, in the, "Bettman, et. al. ought to be concerned about his own personal safety and his family's safety" category...

Especially given that we all know that Ticketmaster won't refund those $40-plus "convenience fees," which will go into the league's pockets as the Winter Classic's likely rolled over to 2014.

So we face a season without hockey, a season with which to discover new ways to spend our time, energy, to invest our passions in and to make a part of our lives while the NHL arrogantly expects us to not dabble in any short or long-term relationships with anything other than hockey at lower North American levels, and as Red Wings fans...

Well, people like you and I are more and more likely than not to believe that Nicklas Lidstrom is so smart that he ahd to see all of this coming, and that it wasn't just his waning desire to engage in offseason training, but also an astute judgment in deciding to get a head start on moving his family back to Sweden and embarking on his post-hockey life given that he was probably going to face off-season training that would last into November and December, if not for an entire season's worth of no hockey being played.

I am starting to think that all of this bullshit did in fact lead to the perhaps slighly premature conclusion of Nicklas Lidstrom's career, and I don't have the words to state how sad that makes someone who'd hoped that at least the just-passed Budd Lynch would welcome Lidstrom to the Joe one last time as a "player," if only to witness his number being retired and raised to the rafters. Which may not happen this year anyway.

That's it for me for now. This took a long time for me to write and I'm still feeling ill, so I must regrettably state that this stupid-ass body needs more time to recover before I can sit up and type for even part of the day.

Whether I'm back on Monday or the week after that, I can't say, and I wish I could say that by the time I come back, we'll be talking about more than Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula, Jonathan Ericsson, Cory Emmerton, Drew Miller and likely more Wings playing hockey in the only venues they can right now--European ones--but I doubt that we'll have more to talk about on this side of the pond than the Griffins, Walleye and Wings' major junior and NCAA-playing prospects, because this war is going to be a long one.

Long and stupid.

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Comments

Red Winger's avatar

Lots of anger today, and rightly so, as many of us have waited half-a-year for this day to come, and usher in another season of NHL hockey.

But what our emotions make us type today will probably not reflect reality once the league begins operating again.

We’ll be back. All of us.

But until then, I am focusing big-time on college hockey and the OHL. The NHL news, if there is any, can find me, I won’t search for it; that just makes all of this longer and more frustrating.

Posted by Red Winger from Sault Ste Marie on 10/11/12 at 03:00 PM ET

MsRedWinger's avatar

We’ll be back. All of us.

I’m not so sure this time.

Posted by MsRedWinger from Flori-duh on 10/13/12 at 10:59 AM ET

cowboycoffee's avatar

no pizza until hockey

Posted by cowboycoffee from San Francisco, CA on 10/13/12 at 02:03 PM ET

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About The Malik Report

The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.