Give Peace A Chance

There is a conflict going on right now with one side trying to hurt innocents and doing a bad job, and one side trying not to hurt innocents and doing a bad job. It is an ancient conflict and there’s no resolution in sight.

No, this isn’t about Israel and Palestine. It’s about the NHL versus its players. The innocents are the fans.

I’m generally in favor of the worker. It’s not that the owners are bad people, it’s just that their imperative in these situations is to make the most amount of money. So, it takes tough negotiation for them to get convinced it’s actually affordable and rational to pay what the workers want.

In the previous lockout, however, I generally favored the owners’ position because at that time there were only a handful of teams that were genuinely competitive perennially. There were some Cinderellas, and who the handful was changed between the late 70s and the early 00s, but there was never parity. In fact, most of the “Cinderellas” were teams that did appeared in the finals and then faded away the next years, like the 2003 Ducks, the 1993 Kings, or the 1996 Panthers.

In the 25 years from 1980 to 2005, only 11 different teams won the Stanley Cup. Before that, parity was even worse, with Montreal winning more than 25% of the championships, which, even during the brief time where the league was six teams is skewed.

Since that lockout, just 7 years ago, 7 different teams have won the Cup and 12 have appeared in the finals. But regular season parity has been greatly improved as well. Remember 9 win Ottawa in the early 90s?

In a league that has drastically overexpanded, the only way to keep fan interest is to give their team a realistic shot every few years. Since the lockout, perhaps only the New York Islanders haven’t even had a glimmer of a chance of making a run.

It wasn’t the players’ fault that the league expanded into Atlanta, Nashville, Raleigh, Phoenix, Dallas, Tampa Bay, San Jose, Anaheim, Columbus and Miami (i.e. one third of the teams) without first putting another team in Greater Toronto. It wasn’t the players’ fault that the league abandoned Winnipeg, Quebec, and Minnesota (only to return to the two of the three). Some of these cities have been able to sustain fan interest; most have not.

It wasn’t the players’ fault that these decisions were made on three of the most foreseeably stupid notions: (1) that the magic European talent pool fairy would “preserve” parity, even though the league already lacked parity; (2) that the Canadian dollar would be permanently weak against the US dollar (remember that?); and (3) that shitty teams in non-traditional markets would spawn legions of season ticket holders. Of course, premised on these assumptions also was that a magical TV deal would appear, which brings…

It wasn’t the players’ fault that the league abandoned even an occasional appearance on ESPN so that it could play second string to the Steroid Derbies of cycling and provide the lead-in to fishing shows on Outdoor Life Network OLN Versus NBCSports.

The players do bear the primary responsibility for some of the ridiculous rule changes that have occurred over the last 15 years trying to bring back the Icestravaganza of the Gretzky era, that period of high parity when 3 (count ’em!) teams (Montreal, the Islanders, and Edmonton) won the Cup in a 15 year period.

But even though most of those things weren’t the players’ fault, restoring some parity, and thus preventing the dufus leadership of the league from destroying itself was to impose a salary cap.

Some teams (like the Islanders) will still trade away an All Star team worth of talent and sign losers and glassjawed players to Magic Johnson contracts all while drafting as if they were trying to win the Special Olympics instead of the Stanley Cup, but it would provide a strong incentive to teams to not do these things and plan long term because they would never be able to simply buy their way out (or blame their failure on other teams doing so).

And, from a monetary perspective at least, it worked. Actually, on a lot of levels it worked. Parity wasn’t “restored”—it came about for the first time ever. The league also slowly, silently walked back some of its more ridiculous rule changes and the product, from the perspective of long-term, hard-core fans, improved. They even put a team back in Winnipeg.

Yet despite this success, the owners decided what they needed to do was mess with the first real improvement in success they had had since the 80s in order to get an even bigger slice of an expanding pie and change the rules they agreed to just a few years ago.

Make no mistake. This lockout will do permanent, long-lasting damage to the league. It does not exist in a vacuum. The previous lockouts are too recent and the effect is cumulative. The mistakes that were not corrected, over-expansion, and teams in unsustainable markets, are basically being doubled-down on, while the improvements being made are being neutralized. The league just can’t give up on the failed experiment in Phoenix—they wouldn’t let the Blackberry co-CEO buy the team while he still had money and move it to Ontario because they didn’t like him, even though the league sold a team to a fraudster will no money recently.

Yet the things that were done to improve fan excitement, like parity, the Winter Classic, and so on only help if games are played.

This shows not just that the owners are greedy, but that they are stupid or are being led by stupid people. This makes one wonder not just about the fate of this season, but about the league in general.

The players should begin seriously considering forming a player-owned league. There may be no saving the NHL.