Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 6, 2013

NHL Salvages A Season, But Will Anyone Care?

So there will be an NHL season after all or at least some semblance of one. Shortly before sunrise on Sunday morning, Commissioner Gary Bettman and Players’ Association Executive Director Donald Fehr stood together in a hotel conference room in New York and announced that agreement had been reached on the framework for a new collective bargaining agreement. The deal came at the end of a marathon 16-hour bargaining session facilitated by federal mediator Scot Beckenbaugh, and just days before the January 10th deadline the league had set for cancelling the entire 2012-13 season.

Beckenbaugh spent Friday shuttling between the NHL’s office in Midtown and the hotel the union was using a few blocks away on West 44th Street. Meeting with each side in turn over the course of 12 hours, the mediator explored what concessions both were willing to make while not revealing the other party’s position. By early Saturday afternoon, even as the players were voting to allow Fehr to dissolve the union and proceed with legal action against the league, Beckenbaugh decided that it was worth having the sides meet face to face. When Bettman and Fehr emerged hours later to announce the deal, the intense rancor and bitterness of a lockout that lasted 113 days was set aside. “Don Fehr and I are here to tell you that we have reached an agreement on a framework for a new collective bargaining agreement,” said Bettman, adding “We still have more work to do, but it’s good to be at this point.” For his part Fehr told reporters that “Hopefully, within a very few days, the fans can get back to watching people who are skating, not the two of us.”

Before that can happen the actual agreement still has to be committed to paper and both the owners and players must ratify it. Players who opted to play overseas during the lockout must return to North America, and general managers have to digest the terms of the deal so they can know how much money they have to finish putting together their teams. All of that is expected to take place within the next few days, followed by very brief training camps and a 48 to 50 game season that should get underway sometime between January 15th and 19th.

While that’s all taking place the media will of course focus on who won and who lost, especially as the terms of the new agreement become known in the next few days. The owners achieved their primary goal of reducing the players’ share of hockey related revenue from 57% in the old contract to 50%, but that particular victory has been a foregone conclusion for weeks. The owners also wanted a lengthy contract, and on the surface this one has a ten year term. However either side can opt out after eight years, which is more in line with what the union was proposing. It appears the owners may also have gotten most of what they wanted in terms of limiting the length of individual contracts and the amount by which a player’s contract can change from year to year, making it more difficult for teams to circumvent the salary cap through creative contracts. On the other hand several players are touting an improved pension plan as a significant victory, and the salary cap of $64.3 million for the 2013-14 season is in line with what the union had proposed.

But the inevitable focus on trying to determine which side “won” misses the larger and rather obvious point, namely that hockey as a major professional sport in the U.S. clearly lost, and lost big. When the first pucks finally drop at arenas across the U.S. and Canada just how many fans will respond to Fehr’s hope that they come out to watch remains to be seen. Hockey remains the number one sport in Canada, and while Canadian fans are certainly just as unhappy as their American counterparts, the stands should be full from Vancouver to Montreal. But in this country the NHL has long struggled to be viewed on a par with the NFL, MLB, and NBA. Franchises in warm weather cities like Nashville and Phoenix have consistently lost money, and the NHL has been slow to adopt a significant revenue sharing mechanism that could help them become more competitive. Still in recent years league revenue grew to more than $3 billion, and Stanley Cup champions in major U.S. markets like Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago, as well as highly competitive teams in the New York area, helped to increase the sport’s popularity with casual fans.

Now three and one-half months of dark arenas have almost certainly driven those same fans away; and it’s unclear what’s going to bring them back. The NHL’s most popular event, the annual Winter Classic outdoor game played on New Year’s Day, fell victim to the lockout, as did the All-Star game which would have boosted the small market Columbus franchise. Now the league will begin its shortened season at the same time that the NFL is gearing up for its conference championship games. It’s not hard to guess which sport the casual fan will be watching.

Since Bettman became Commissioner in 1993 he has imposed three lockouts, including one that cost the sport the entire 2004-05 season. Under his stewardship roughly 2,400 regular season games, or about ten percent of the total schedule during his tenure, have been cancelled. As they walked away after announcing the settlement, Fehr patted Bettman on the shoulder and said, “That was painless.” Sorry Don, but you got that wrong.


  1. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a long period of hockey uninterrupted by work stoppages. It’s hard to believe that it’s now going on 20-years since baseball has had one. What both sides need to keep in mind is that if the game itself suffers, no one wins.
    Nice post,

  2. Yeah, one would hope that lessons for the future will be learned from this garbage, but I’ll just enjoy the sport knowing that they’ll be ready to do this again in a few years.

    • If Gary Bettman is still in charge you can mark your calendar now. Thanks for reading.

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