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Iced Out: The Six People You Meet in Lockout Hell

Attempting to understand the big, fat mess that is the NHL

One of the biggest sports stories of this fall has been The Lockout: the battle over money and power; the greedy owners staring down an obstinate union, the lost paychecks and respect. News of this labor stoppage has been everywhere: SportsCenter got its highest ratings ever in an episode focused on its effects on the game; a 140-character burst about the situation became the most retweeted tweet of all time; even Ellen talked about it on her show.

Ah, so glad that’s over and those NFL referees are back on the field where they belong.

It’s perversely funny, almost: The NHL can’t even be the best at making unpopular collective-bargaining decisions. The league locked out its players nearly a month ago, and in the time since then there’s been almost zero movement, fanfare, or hope. Players have trickled overseas to play elsewhere. Games have been officially postponed. What we’re left with is a Jenga tower of rumors and speculation: The holes keep piling up, and yet we keep right on building. Some say the season is toast. Others say it will be back by November. As with the concurrent presidential election, it’s impossible to tell what’s strategic posturing at any given time and what’s truth. And so no one trusts anyone, and everyone’s doomed.
With that in mind, here’s a broad look at some of the factions involved in the NHL’s labor stoppage who have the most to gain or lose — but probably mostly lose, as is ever the case — from what will unfold over the next few weeks or, nopleaseno, months.

1. The Players’ Association

They looked intimidating but uneasy in their cargo shorts and T-shirts, their hats on, their big arms folded, and their wide backs leaning up against the white columns in the ballroom of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. They didn’t look like a mingle of millionaires. They just looked like a posse of college kids, or of recent grads hanging poolside in Vegas. (Zdeno Chara, for good measure, even had on what I think was an Ed Hardy tee.)

Some of them were NHL stars, like Zach Parise, formerly of the New Jersey Devils, who this summer with Ryan Suter signed matching 13-year, $98 million contracts with the Minnesota Wild as free agents. Others were lesser-known and lesser-paid guys, like Ben Lovejoy, who makes $525,000 a year with the Pittsburgh Penguins. But you could easily imagine any of them, these NHL athletes gathered in New York for players’ association meetings, as man-children receiving the news of an NHL lockout in a scene right out of Old School:

Dear Rick,

If you’re holding this letter, you already know. The house has been boarded up. The doors. The windows. Everything. We’re at the Comfort Inn. Room 112.

I love you,

Hank

Up on the stage where NHL Players’ Association chief Donald Fehr would soon be addressing the media, Sidney Crosby chatted with Henrik Lundqvist. They were two of the reported 283 players who had come to New York in mid-September in part to “show solidarity” in the hours leading up to the declaration of a lockout by NHL owners. The mic picked up dribs and drabs of their conversation: something about California, something about golf. (Nothing about Michael Phelps, who had run into Crosby at a bar the night before and tweeted: “I need to follow NHL more … Just met the best of the best … Cool sport and it involves water in some way!!! Hahaha.”)

Fehr gave an address, then answered questions. “Hockey is poised, I think, to really move over the next two or three or four years to a fundamentally different place than it has been in before,” he said. “The question is whether the disagreement we’re now having is going to screw that up.”

“The disagreement,” as Fehr eloquently called it, is essentially this: The league wants to roll back the percentage of hockey-related revenue that goes to the players, saying that it’s grown to be unmanageably high, while the players wonder why this is necessary. They point to the growth in league revenues since the last lockout — and also to what happened during that lockout itself.

Seven years ago, the league and the players’ association engaged in near-religious warfare over the implementation of a salary cap, a measure the owners had wanted for years and the union had savagely — and, for a time, successfully — fought to avoid. The 2004-05 lockout was a backbreaking saga that fractured the league, tortured fans, and robbed some players of huge paychecks and a year of their primes.1

It didn’t happen overnight, but in the years since, the NHL has been buoyed by a number of favorable conditions: a stronger Canadian dollar, high-definition TV (and events like the Winter Classic to take advantage of it), smart digital strategies, and, crucially, the emergence of marketable players like Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, who were drafted immediately before and after the lost season. Since 2005, seasonal revenues have climbed from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion. But with them, so have revenue-linked payrolls.

NHL owners have been less enthralled by the uptick in hockey enthusiasm than they’ve been distracted by the deals reached last year in the NFL and NBA, in which the players’ unions ultimately agreed to take smaller splits of revenues than they had in the past. And so the league is asking its players not only to agree to fewer dollars going forward, they’d also like them to take a bath on the preexisting contracts that the teams themselves offered — many of them on the day right before the expiration of the old CBA.

It’s business, sure. But for the players, it’s also a little insulting.

“It seems like for [the NHL], it’s become the bully in the playground,” said Calgary Flames forward Mike Cammalleri. “It’s like, ‘We think we can take your cookies, too.’ ”

The players are unified now, motivated by their new union boss and not quite feeling the full emptiness of lost paychecks. (Escrow checks, which return to the players money that was withheld from last season, will hit sometime soon, temporarily easing the blow.) But it always begins this way. The hard part comes a month or two from now, when boredom sets in, little progress has been made, and a gulf starts to develop between the players who can find big bucks overseas and the ones who don’t have much of anywhere to go. The league hopes this is the case, at least.

2. Gary Bettman

Gary Bettman, we are often reminded in times like these, doesn’t work for the players, nor does he work for idealist concepts like “the good of the game.” His bosses are the members of the NHL’s Board of Governors, who carved out the position of “commissioner” for him back in 1993 when they hired him away from the NBA,2 where he had served under David Stern and had been, among other things, one of the architects of the league’s first salary cap in the ’80s.

Hiring Bettman, right from the beginning, was done with a salary cap in mind — even though Bettman tried to dispel that notion. “The last thing I want the union to think is, Well, they hired Bettman, it means they’ve got to have a salary cap,” the newly appointed commish said soon after taking on the job. But when collective bargaining talks began a year and a half later in 1994, there was no question that a salary cap was exactly what the commissioner and his owners were seeking — even if it would take them another decade (and the lost season of 2004-05) to finally win what they euphemistically referred to as “cost certainty.”

Gary Bettman is neither the genius that his acolytes make him out to be nor the evildoer that his antagonists suggest. (I recommend this point-counterpoint from Sportsnet Magazine that lays out many of the common arguments for Bettman — the increased revenues he’s helped bring in, the fact that much of the league’s southern expansion strategy was designed before he arrived — and against: “I’d bet he spends the first five minutes of lunch talking down to his sandwich.”) But he doesn’t always help his own case.

Asked this spring by Bob Costas what mistakes he has made as commissioner — you could almost hear every hockey fan watching the program screaming angry suggestions at the screen — Bettman gave three. But the first one was the most telling: “In ’94, we made the deal during collective bargaining that wasn’t the right deal, just to save the season,” he said, referring to the lockout that swallowed half of the 1994-95 season but failed to result in the salary cap the owners were seeking.3 (The comment was echoed rather creepily in a recent Larry Brooks column, in which Brooks writes that a “well-placed source reports Bettman has told people he believes the NBA and Stern caved in to save the 2011-2012 season” last fall during the NBA lockout and that he is “resolute” against doing the same thing. Yikes.)

If Bettman is so regretful about not cracking the whip harder in 1994-95, and if he looks down at the NBA’s ability to get a deal done last December, then how singularly proud must he feel about the league’s most recent hard-line CBA from 2005? The one that both included a salary cap and slashed all existing player salaries by a quarter, the one that, according to a new book on Bettman called The Instigator, he spent over four-and-a-half years preparing for, the one whose negotiation was so important to both sides that they dug in and canceled the whole 2004-05 season over it?

Well, as it turns out, not so much.

“There’s so much revisionist history relative to what happened eight years ago,” Bettman said at a press conference earlier this month, “that somehow [the players] got slammed in the negotiations last time. They didn’t.

“We made at the time what we thought was a fair deal,” he continued. “It actually turned out to be more fair than perhaps it should have.”

More fair than perhaps it should have. Had this been one of the political campaigns taking place these days, this illuminating bit of Yogiberrian nonsensical truth, kicky and memorable as it was, might have been categorized as a gaffe — a slip that revealed too much leg. (You could see the demographically targeted response strategy already: You use this word “fair,” but I do not think it means what you think it means … ) But in this case, it barely registered. It was just Bettman as usual. He probably thinks fair has to do with the 47 percent.

3. Donald Fehr

“You go through The Sporting News for the last 100 years, and you will find two things are always true,” Donald Fehr, then the executive director and chief counsel of Major League Baseball’s players’ association, told Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Hoffer in 1991. “You never have enough pitching, and nobody ever made money.”

Replace pitching with goaltending, and the same’s true in hockey. When Don Fehr left the MLBPA in 2009, he had more than two decades of experience, one season-canceling player strike, and one last-minute labor deal under his belt; he’d seen just about everything. Which is one of the reasons the NHLPA snapped him up.

When Fehr was hired to lead the NHLPA in 2010, he was basically moving into a haunted house. Five other men had held the position since 2005, and the problems stretched back to the organization’s first executive director, Alan Eagleson, who was at the helm from 1967 through 1991. Eagleson was a lawyer and one of the league’s most powerful agents; he was also a hothead who harangued players for asking questions, as well as a crook who skimmed off their funds.4

Bob Goodenow, who took over from Eagleson, had a mixed record but ultimately found himself shouldering much of the blame for submitting to a salary cap. Ted Saskin was unceremoniously disposed when he was caught snooping through players’ e-mails. Paul Kelly also got the boot following a rumored clash with Eric Lindros; the whole thing resulted in Scott Burnside likening the NHLPA to “a group of cavemen sitting around a campfire roasting a mastodon.”

Out of this chaos came Fehr, who — like any good authority figure tasked with wrangling together highly scattered groups5 — doesn’t try to yell over the din. He speaks softly, and you have to listen closely to hear him. His early life was similarly quiet. “On medication to relieve his allergies,” E.M. Swift wrote, “Fehr didn’t drink, smoke or experiment with drugs, which, in the ’60s, put him in a distinct minority.”

He is just as serious about his current role. Maclean’s Jonathon Gatehouse, who wrote The Instigator, called Fehr “a surprisingly radical figure” and “a real, old-style union leader” who “believes strongly that this dispute is just the same as if the guys who he’s representing were on an auto shop floor or were the janitors for a school board — that these are workers and it is workers rights that are being attacked.”

This spring, before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, I watched Fehr watch Bettman deliver a miniature state of the league address to the media that included a boast about record revenues of $3.3 billion. Fehr perched in the way back of the room, but even from back there you could tell he was a worthy adversary, the wily feline to Bettman’s bulldog. “I wanted to hear what Gary had to say,” he said placidly then. “You can watch it on TV, but it’s never quite the same.” He noted that the revenue projections they had been working with were less than this exciting new $3.3 billion figure. “That’s good to know.”

4. The Board of Governors

When Don Fehr spoke two days before the commencement of the lockout, he was surrounded by his constituents. Gary Bettman, on the other hand, stood alone. This was quite literally by design: When one reporter asked if any of the owners would be sharing their views on the negotiations, Bettman invoked “bylaw 17.17, which doesn’t enable anybody to speak on this subject except me or [NHL deputy commissioner] Bill Daly … we do that because we are the most able to address these issues.”

A few days later, you could see exactly why the gag order had been put in place. Detroit Red Wings senior VP Jim Devellano gave an interview to Island Sports News in which, among many other things,6 he said:

It’s very complicated and way too much for the average Joe to understand, but having said that, I will tell you this: The owners can basically be viewed as the Ranch, and the players, and me included, are the cattle. The owners own the Ranch and allow the players to eat there. That’s the way its [sic] always been and that’s the way it will be forever. And the owners simply aren’t going to let a union push them around. It’s not going to happen.

It wasn’t the first time the analogy has been used — the Dallas Cowboys’ Tex Schramm made similar comments in 1987 — but it still provided plenty of bulletin-board material for the players. “You never like to be referenced to a farm animal, that’s for sure,” said the Canucks’ Chris Higgins. (Solid headline there, Vancouver Sun.) Milan Lucic of the Bruins looked at the bright side: “I guess I must be Grade A prime beef,” he said.

You can see why the league prefers that the owners keep still behind Bettman. But while the league may be losing in the court of public opinion, it doesn’t come close to negating the advantages its side has in general. While the average NHL player’s stint lasts somewhere around five years, meaning that a lost year could wipe out nearly 20 percent of his career earnings, the owners have a much longer time horizon and alternate streams of income, giving them both the incentive to hold out and the ability to do so. (And for those who own unprofitable teams, a lockout’s not so bad after all.)

This time around, though, the owners don’t have the same single-minded zeal that the salary cap instilled in them back in 2004. They agree on one central thing: They want the players to take a lower share of hockey-related revenue, down from the 57 percent they currently receive7 — a level they claim is no longer tenable given other rising costs. Bettman cited “massage therapists” and “jet fuel” as examples, sounding once again like an embattled politician. But while the owners are said to be unanimous in their conviction, a look at their circumstances reveals them to be far from a homogeneous group.

Some teams are hamstrung by the current arrangement. They struggle to meet the ever-rising salary floor each season and subsist on small revenue-sharing payments (or in the case of a franchise like the Islanders, who don’t qualify because of the size of their market, none at all). Of course, revenue sharing is not something that’s high on the agenda of large-market teams. In its earliest formal proposal this August, the players’ association mined this gap, offering to concede to lower salary increases and use the difference to help support struggling teams — provided that the big franchises would be contributing, too. It was a bit like offering a panhandler your sandwich rather than just giving him your cash.

“I doubt that all the owners are as well informed as all the players,” said Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller. “I don’t know if that’s going to get me in trouble or not. I just feel like it’s kind of whatever they are told by Gary.”

5. The Russians

The lockout may be young, but it already has a decisive winner: hockey fans in Russia, particularly those who can afford the likes of a $370 Ovechkin jersey. With the start of the NHL season indefinitely delayed, players from the freakishly armed Pavel Datsyuk to Ilyas Bryzgalov and Kovalchuk have already returned home to bide their time in the Kontinental Hockey League. (It didn’t take long for Datsyuk to hit the highlight reels.)

One only has to look at the expression on this young Russian fan’s face — if you can’t read facial cues in Cyrillic, his sweatshirt provides handy subtitles — to see how exciting it is to have guys like Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin back home. (For Malkin, who essentially escaped to the United States from his KHL team in 2006 via a covert operation in Finland, it’s been quite the journey.)

While it’s the only one currently being broadcast stateside, Russia isn’t the only place housing the NHL diaspora. Many players are popping up in various European leagues from Switzerland to Sweden to the Czech Republic. (Marc Spector hates them all, as does Damien Cox.)8

But none of these leagues or locations have the same beautiful and complicated history with NHL and international hockey as Russia does. From its iconic 1972 Summit Series against Canada to its upcoming role as host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia’s influence on hockey, depending on whom you ask, is a source of great pride, endless hilarity, and never-ending xenophobia. (If you ask Malkin, you’ll just get: “Russia best.”)

Which is why it made waves when Ovechkin, who signed a reported $6 million-or-so deal with Dynamo Moscow, had some harsh things to say about the state of labor negotiations back in the United States. “If our contracts get slashed, I will have to think whether to return there or not,”9 he said, adding that “I won’t rule out staying in the KHL, even past this season.”

It was more bark than bite, of course; Ovechkin remains under NHL contract, and the two leagues have a “memo of understanding” with one another. Still, I can’t help but wonder if maybe Ovechkin, who last month shaved his head to show that he’s “one of the soldiers on the NHLPA” and who now kinda looks like Shane from The Walking Dead, is crazy like a fox. When Washington Post reporter Katie Carrera spoke with him to clarify that nothing had been lost in translation, he doubled down.

“It’s not us who stop the NHL, it’s the league stop the NHL, the Bettman and the owners stop NHL,” Ovechkin said. “They don’t play hockey, they don’t block the shots, they don’t fight, they don’t get hit. They just sit in a box and enjoy the hockey.”

One season with Dale Hunter and now Ovi’s all about the shot-blocking, eh? Anyway, I’m totally calling Gary “the Bettman” from now on.

6. The Fans

Money-saving potential aside, some of the biggest losers in any forced labor stoppage in sports are always the fans, those feral, mouthy lunatics whose anger over their teams not being in business is only marginally more fierce than the rage they typically direct at those teams when they are. NHL fans in particular, though, really have had a tough run: Not only has the league lost more games due to labor stoppages since 1992 than any of the other major professional sports, the timing of this one is especially frustrating, coming just as the NHL felt like it was gaining some steam.

So what is to be done? Threatened boycotts are well intentioned, but self-limiting; you become the person who tries to get all her friends to leave the party by walking out the door first, only to be left alone in the cold while they have one last beer inside. I’m really upset that hockey’s gone, but vowing never to watch it again even when it’s back seems pretty much like a lose-lose proposition to me.

Your mileage may vary, but my own solution is just to take the whole thing in, in its messy and horrible glory, like the moment when you’re on a super-delayed airplane and you just give up and secretly enjoy the spectacle of everyone freaking out around you.10 Bask in what are sure to be monumental moments of idiocy and/or awkwardness. Revel in everyone’s tendencies to blow each and every development, good or bad, completely out of proportion. Remember that this time last year, the same thing was happening with the NBA and that the situation looked so dire at one point in early October that my boss bought L.A. Kings season tickets. Make side bets. Watch more college hockey than you ever have before and feel creepy the first time you scream at some little sophomore. (Then feel creepier in four years when you’re saying things like, “Dude, I watched him back when he was at Merrimack — kid’s a horse!”)

Follow some of the more peculiar lockout goings-on. Cross your fingers that the attempt by Montreal Canadiens players to argue that the NHLPA is not a legally recognized union in Quebec, and can thus not be locked out, is successful. It won’t be, but wouldn’t that be kind of fun? Start or support a rebel league; these sorts of upstarts have a long history in hockey.11 Fantasize about how sweet it would be if hockey had relegation like European soccer. Join the movement, best explained in a “manifesto” by Maclean’s Colby Cosh, to see that the Stanley Cup is awarded to someone this season, even if it’s not an NHL team. (During the last lockout, a group successfully sued over this concept, but it all happened too late.)

Go to minor league hockey: Stateside, the AHL will feature some pretty killer combinations of the league’s young guys, from Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn on the Adirondack Phantoms to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and Justin Schultz on the Oklahoma City Barons. (For a fun diversion, check out some of the AHL rosters from the last lockout.) Loiter at your local rinks more than usual: Players without immediate plans have been renting ice time and existing in the purgatory of what the Minnesota Wild’s Matt Cullen called a “glorified beer league — without the beer.” (He was one of a number of Wild players to be shooed off the ice at a local rink the other day by a “no-nonsense, red-headed figure-skating instructor” named “Coach Marla” who wanted the ice for a private lesson with an 8-year-old.)

The lockout sucks. It sucks a lot. But at some point, it will end. You will be mad, and you will be right to be mad. You will feel that things have irrevocably changed. But a few years from now — hell, maybe even a few months — your team will come back from a shitty first half of a season to squeeze into the playoffs on the very last day, or they’ll draft a bright young star who will grow into the face of the franchise, or someone will score three times in 10 seconds (or make three big saves in that span) or they’ll win a big Game 7 or a Stanley Cup or a Stanley Cup in Game 7 … and whenever this finally happens, you won’t be mad anymore.

Filed Under: NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, People, Sports

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes