Anatomy of the NHL: Players, Owners, and Fans

"Empty Net" Michele Catalano Flickr

Writer’s note: This is not a vanity story about empowering the sports fan. This is about remembering why we’re all here, making sure hockey doesn’t die, and sewing a few stitches of basic behavioral economics and biology to make sense of labor disputes in the National Hockey League.

Why Being a Hockey Fan in the Age of Labor Disputes Can Really … Suck.

The 2012-2013 NHL lockout put hockey fans through the wringer … again. That’s how we see it and as egocentric as it may sound, it’s [mostly] what matters. Fans pack the house, buy merchandise and furnish their team with sustained value. The investment isn’t just money either. Hockey fans have an obstinate fever for the sport and we’re willing to sacrifice our own personal welfare in the process. Not even for big returns, like a Stanley Cup Championship, but small things like a free t-shirt that’s eight sizes too big.

Hockey fans go to great lengths to preserve what they think is sacred. We pass down our fandom to our children, some of us get tattoos; we are the heart of the sport and culture. Fair-weather hockey fans do not exist.

The proof is in the success stories of high-revenue hockey clubs and impasses of low-revenue hockey clubs. (How to strike a revenue balance was one of the widely disputed arguments in CBA negotiations.)

2012-2013 NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement Negotiations Almost Puts Season on Ice

The National Hockey League (NHL) and National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) struggled to put their shirt-and-tie differences aside in the boardroom, to negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) which expired earlier this year. The CBA’s purpose is to protect all parties invested in the business of hockey, except for the fans. (They are still only spectators.)

After 113 days, the NHL and NHLPA settled the labor dispute and it came down to the wire. Ratification and signing of a memorandum of understanding was completed 6 days later, on Jan. 12, 2013. The efforts to salvage the 2012-2013 NHL season resulted in a 48 game schedule (normally 82).

The major talking points of the 2012-2013 CBA negotiations:

  1. Player’s Share: Ensures the players receive an agreed percentage of NHL revenues by establishing a salary cap and “floor,” which is the baseline spending of a salary cap.
  2. Salary Cap “Floor”: Keeps team spending in check and protects every individual player’s earning potential.
  3. The Guaranteed Contract: Shields players from owners who might dump player contracts for a host of reasons, like salary cap issues, established by player contract variance.
  4. Escrow Payment: Evaluates correct revenue splits between players and teams by tying up some cash to distribute at the end of the season.
  5. Revenue Sharing: Strategically distributes money between high-revenue and low-revenue teams to create league balance.

A Lesson in Hockey Biology

The NHL is the chest wall, the players are the lungs, and the fans a single beating heart. Two out of three won’t cut it. You need all of them.

Some people said hockey wasn’t going to be able to come back from this one (that we couldn’t handle another year like the ’04-’05 NHL lockout). Too much heartbreak, I guess. Hockey is a matter of the heart, especially for fans, and living with an arrhythmia for so long prompts some serious medical concerns.

Let’s say the NHL, a Board of Governors and executives led by Commissioner Gary Bettman, is the thoracic wall (chest wall). In biology, the chest wall is responsible for reducing friction and minimizing loss, which is what the NHL’s primary objective should be. They are the ones holding the bag, containing hockey’s potential. The players are the lungs, breathing life into the sport. A stable relationship between the lungs and chest wall is very important. And the fans are a single beating heart, powering the body.

It’s really simple. The hockey body is healthiest when each part and parcel exercises regularly and assumes its designated function.

We’re all here to shape an esteemed hockey culture and we play defined roles. Here’s what a hockey body looks like in pinnacle-form:

  1. Decision makers who compose unassailable business objectives and form relationships that earn trust in the marketplace;
  2. Players who train hard to perform at the highest level and ensure the NHL is a paragon of skill and prestige;
  3. Legions of passionate fans, across the NHL, who give meaning to the term home ice advantage.

Anything short of this and I think we’re cheating ourselves.

The Legacy of Gary Bettman

Gary Bettman … Guys, I’m going to take it easy on him. If you’re looking for a Bettman rant, go here. (I’m sure you’ll find something.)

The NHL Commissioner must be at the center of CBA discussions and labor disputes – that’s not negotiable. Bettman’s seen his fair share of labor conflicts and has been consistently flogged, openly, by hockey fans and the media. The man cares about hockey more than most people would like to admit and hockey is in good care under his watch. (Wait, don’t chastise me yet.)

Bettman was elected NHL Commissioner by the Board of Governors in 1993, which means he was a key player in the NHL’s biggest slugging matches over labor disputes. Hiding in the shade of Bettman’s lockout history is how he has handled league expansion (e.g. relocating teams from Canada to the South). Bettman is often scrutinized by hockey fans for ripping the game from its roots. But does anyone remember the Atlanta Thrashers? Their club closed the arena doors in Atlanta and moved back to Winnipeg in 2011.

Here’s an unpopular opinion: Bettman deserves more credit.

League growth and revenue, from the trappings of $400 million to more than $3.0 billion, is largely Bettman’s craft. The NHL had 24 teams play in the 1992-93 season and now there are 30 teams competing for the Stanley Cup. Do the math. (That’s a net growth of 25%.) To be fair, bigger is not always better but the NHL has procured long-term stability with Bettman so long as daily operations continue.

“A band will be remembered for its many successes but defined by its one great failure.” – Chuck Klosterman, “Shut Up and Play The Hits”

On the subject of fame and being in the public eye, if this is a litmus test, Bettman will be remembered for his many successes but defined by his one great failure. There won’t be a parade in Bettman’s name, just a passing of the torch. Thanks for your time, and here’s your gold watch and paycheck.

Closing the wound / Open skate

Fans understand that hockey is a business and there needs to be money, but with two major NHL lockouts in one decade money took center stage. Hockey’s heart nearly stopped pumping due to the pressure building up between the NHL and NHLPA. Losing air, the heartbeat was fading and hockey couldn’t breathe.

Maybe the surfacing of recent NHL lockouts is an eye-opener for fans and the role of sports in American culture, maybe it’s not. We don’t like to see or acknowledge that side of the things we love, so it’s natural to turn a blind eye. When it comes down to it, you hope hockey (not money) comes first and that our loyalty and passion has a higher purpose than to prime business objectives. Sports are the new religion. * Welcome *

You see, we’re a special breed of sports fans. This isn’t baseball. We have the intensity most similar to fans of some European football clubs. I don’t think anyone has killed a hockey player for a poor performance in a big game, but the culture is there.

There’s a reason why I get goose bumps at The Garden when the Broadway Blueshirts ignite the red scoring lamp, signaling a goal. It’s an adrenaline rush. There’s a reason why I tear up every time I hear Sam Rosen say, “The waiting is over! The New York Rangers are the Stanley Cup Champions! And this one will last a lifetime!”

I bleed blue. Hockey enthusiasts know this much: you’re either a diehard fan or you’re someone who can’t identify the slot. There is nothing in between and that’s why hockey is so great. Everyone involved is great (including Gary Bettman). There’s no middle ground. Hit or be hit. On or offside. Skate with everything you’ve got or sit on the fucking bench. Win or lose. Champion or placeholder.

We fight, in the stands and on the ice, in the name of hockey. Something that we don’t fight is insane beer prices – we concede this ground to you. So, we need an NHL that isn’t about fighting. Let us fight. You guys keep the peace and make sure the jerseys stay on when the gloves come off.

More hockey:

  1. Reconciliation, NHL Style by Michele Catalano – A hockey fan’s romantic confession that keeps score of love and despair, obsession and deceit, and unconditional love across 30 years of intimacy.
  2. [Video] NHL Board of Governors ratifies terms of new CBA by Dan Rosen.
  3. Collective Bargaining Agreement Updates, from Inside the NHLPA.
  4. [Video] NHL – ‘Our Way of Life’ by Janne Makkonen (one of the greatest NHL tributes I’ve seen)

Featured Photograph: “empty net” by Michele Catalano.

Categories: Uncategorized

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