The Malik Report
by George Malik on 10/31/12 at 03:58 AM ET
I'm about a week from returning from my uber-virus, but given that the Winter Classic and the Hockeytown Winter Festival will be canceled today or tomorrow, I need to state the obivous:
Let there be no mistake. When the NHL cancels the Winter Classic and, as the Free Press's Helene St. James has noted, pulls its rink from Comerica Park, it will have declared nuclear war upon not only the NHLPA, but also its most fervent fans--and business partners.
For the sake of removing negotiating leverage, I believe that the NHL will simply cancel the season unless the NHLPA capitulates and agrees to a CBA that not only slashes player wages and mobility for the sake of pure greed--and a retroactive idiot-proofing of the CBA that punitively damages both the general managers who signed players to "lifetime contracts" and those who represent the league's highest wage-earners and fan favorites--but also ensures that the "kick the can" policies of a league unwilling to address the fundamental deficiencies of its current 30-team business model will almost certainly lock out its players for a fourth time.
In my opinion, the only question that will remain is when the Gary Bettman, Bill Daly and the Board of Governors make Jimmy Devellano's promise to Howard Berger that the season would be, "Very easy to cancel, very easy, believe me!" reality. The Board of Governors' out-of-hand dismissals of the NHLPA's counter-proposals have understated the fact that they wholeheartedly approve of the tactics of a commissioner who wants to burn down the village in order to save it, and to do so for the third time in eighteen years...
And in canceling the Winter Classic, the NHL will unequivocally state that it values the hard-core, highest-willing-to-pay fans not as fellow "cattle" grazing at the owners' ranch, but instead, ever-exploitable grass which they believe will remain readily available to feed upon.
During a third owners' lockout in which the owners' refusal to negotiate with the NHLPA while sharing $3.3 billion of something instead of $0 of nothing has devastated team staffs, broadcasters, rink workers whose livelihoods hinge upon 41 home games' worth of income and the restaurants, memorabilia shops and various businesses which survive thanks to fans' inside and outside-the-rink discretionary spending, canceling the league's marquee event, and doing so with the tacit approval of two of the league's most powerful franchises in the Red Wings and Maple Leafs, makes this war a nuclear one.
When I've been healthy enough to venture onto Twitter (I'm currently recovering from the antibiotic I took to reset my immune system, but am slowly starting to feel more like myself), I've stated that Bettman has become a sort of Dr. Merkwurdigliebe from Dr. Strangelove, advocating the nuclear option as the tactic of first resort, and that the concept of essentially back-hacking the CBA to ensure that some of the players signed to lifetime deals in less than good faith (Ryan Suter had it right before he retracted his remarks) will find themselves unemployed and spread across the league in yet another de-facto lockout turned dispersal draft, with spent cap space ensuring that the highest-earners will have to take massive pay-cuts and re-set the free agent marketplace is nothing less than absurd. The owners' current proposal does nothing less than ravage itself in a bizarre act of penitent self-harm, and such tactics display a truly twisted, if not perverted view of everyone, owners and general managers included, as subject to carpet bombings' worth of collateral damage.
Now, the NHL's ready to remove another leverage point at the cost of telling its biggest sponsors to come back next year, when business terms are more favorable and the league will believe it can squeeze them for even more money, and in terms of the fans?
Die-hard hockey fans have been hit the hardest by the violations of trust in the league as a worthwhile investment of time, energy, emotions and especially money, with those of us who remember the previous lockout (or lockouts) finding ourselves more and more jaded toward the collective that is Bettman and the Board as well as our individual teams' ownership groups, forcing us to question why we spend sometimes thousands or tens of thousands of discretionary income on a lifestyle, an identity and a way of life whose stewards tell us they're breaking up with us every eight to ten years to take some "time off," expecting us to both come back and spend freely as they charge us ever-higher prices to watch players (who are rightly questioning why the hell they play in the NHL and not in Europe when they're being forced to re-start their careers, knowing that a generation of slightly aging stars who couldn't adjust to the "new" game or simply lost their edge due to inactivity were also casualties of the last lockout) compete, almost completely irrespective of player salaries.
And when the NHL informs its fans that it will eventually return their exorbitantly expensive Winter Classic and Hockeytown Winter Festival tickets to them (with or without Ticketmaster's "service fees?" We don't know at this point), it will probably do something particularly cutthroat to ensure that the league's ass may remain cushioned by stacks of money: the league will likely remind fans that its Winter Classic and the Red Wings-sponsored Winter Festival events were incredibly difficult to gain access to, and as such, it's highly likely to suggest that fans leave their hundreds or thousands of dollars in tickets (never mind money earmarked for travel and accommodations) in the league's hands, lest the fans find themselves left waiting at the end of the line, wanting for tickets that are already gone.
It's one thing when teams ask their fans to keep their financial covenant by allowing the team to retain their season-ticket deposits, if not partial or full-season payments, for the sake of "losing one's place"; it's another when the league itself callously cancels the flagship event of its regular season, and tells its sponsors and fans that it might not be wise to relinquish their committed funds.
In that sense, today or tomorrow, the lockout will become a league-wide hostage-taking, with all 30 teams and the NHL itself taking part in the figurative and literal process.
If a saner alternative takes place, and the league either "holds fans' spots" in line while refunding part or all of their committed funds, or just issues blanket refunds for trust's sake? Don't be surprised if the league cranks up the prices to attend the events next season so that the NHL, the Red Wings and Maple Leafs can make even more money.
As days go by, as the NHL refuses to negotiate with the NHLPA and the league continues to "cancel" events by default, one must also wonder whether the NHL's cachet with sponsors will fade as well given the litany of broken promises and deposits taken, and whether a league that nukes its business and community villages in order to "save" them once a decade can really be taken seriously. In that sense, even the greedy billionaires looking to stick their hands into the pocketbooks and bank accounts of the players who draw fans to the rinks may want to pause before continuing to attempt to give their players, employees and fans a TSA-style frisking, wondering whether their desire for a greater piece of the $3.3 billion pie will have more detrimental long-term effects upon their league-wide and especially local business partnerships...
But it's hard to find any sympathy for the 30 franchises who have agreed to lay waste to the 2012-2013 season and all its marketing and business opportunities, as well as its non-playing employees and the communities that support said teams, for the sake of embracing Bettman and Daly's vision for the business of the supposedly preeminent hockey league in the world for the next decade.
It's much easier to understand that today or tomorrow, the NHL's officially screwing the cities of Detroit and Ann Arbor, Southeastern Michigan as a whole and hundreds of thousands of Red Wings and Maple Leafs fans because the league believes "retrenching" and collecting upon a retroactive, player and fan-fueled bailout for an economic downturn that the league and its 30 teams weathered much better than almost any other North American business enterprise...Is more than worth a collective show of force that cements its status as a sports league that openly resents its fans and business partners, and refuses to "play" for anyone unless its "cattle" bend and break to its demands.
The nuclear option promises long-lasting contamination and fallout for years to come, but the NHL is willing to engage in nuclear war because one fact should hit its fans like a lead apron today: Gary Bettman's NHL and Board of Governors don't give a shit about the people who pay their bills.
I'm sorry to leave you on such a downer, but I'll be back soon to cover the gloom and doom and talk about the players who are playing in prospects and Wings skating overseas. It's too bad that if you want to watch the Red Wings' best players play this season, you're highly likely to have to take a trip to Switzerland, Finland and Russia to do so, but that's the way this lockout rolls.
I do hope to see you soon and I've missed you, TMR readers. In times like these, a sense of community is essential, even if it's a grief support group, and I do want you to know that I don't take your readership for granted, not for a millisecond. I will return as soon as humanly possible.
Update: I don't know where to stick this in the narrative, so I'll place it here: there's no small irony in the fact that the NHL's statement about canceling the Winter Classic and Hockeytown Winter Festival will probably include an invokation of having its players, franchises, business partners and fans' best interests in mind by laying waste to the festivities. The league's, "Trust us, we're doing what's best for you" stance is patronizing at best and mostly deeply insulting.
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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.