CHICAGO -- On the eve of what should be the opening to another Chicago Blackhawks training camp, the team is scattered. Some are in Chicago working out under the direction of their captain, while others are at home in Canada or overseas waiting for word when and where they will be playing hockey this winter. There won’t be a 5K run outside the United Center on Saturday and there won’t be a sold-out crowd inside watching the Hawks run through the first drills of the long season. The popular training camp festival has been canceled -- or at least delayed until further notice.
And so it goes as the NHL lockout completes its first week and training camps across two countries are postponed.
It’s been extremely easy to take the players’ side in this debacle but that’s mostly because only one voice is talking for the owners, and commissioner Gary Bettman hasn’t exactly chosen his words to encourage support for his arguments. NHLPA union chief Donald Fehr has been much more accommodating and nuanced in his explanations and overall the players’ side has been more conscious of public perception. But let’s not be fooled, the players might be more “fan friendly” in this debate but that can simply be a somewhat desperate tactic to garner fan support. Fehr doesn’t have many cards to play -- he has little leverage -- so getting the fans to voice their opinions loudly can’t hurt.
But Bettman isn’t listening.
In talking to people in hockey over the course of just the last couple important weeks, the picture they paint of Bettman is a confusing one. Many, including Jonathan Toews -- have used the word ‘stubborn’ to describe him or the situation at hand. They wonder, where is the actual negotiation? When will it start? Bettman’s position, for all intents and purposes, has been a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. And his explanation for what he wants and why he wants or needs it has been lacking.
During the last labor crisis, in 2004-05, Bettman had many on his side when it came to the addition of the salary cap. Other sports were moving in that direction and in the way the economics of professional sports were moving, in general, the argument for a cap and the resulting competitive balance was a strong one. Small-market and big-market teams were conceivably able to compete with each other. There are some holes in that system, possibly when it comes to signing bonuses for example, but those are the tweaks that should be happening in this negotiation. Of course, when the sides can’t split up $3.3 billion then the little stuff really doesn’t matter.
But Bettman can’t use competitive balance as an argument this time around nor can he say the league is in financial trouble. Not when he boasts often about the increase in revenues from year-to-year. If Bettman really wanted to set the table for this summer he should have been crying poor for the owners long ago. But his ego and the facts got in the way. The league has been increasing its revenues even during a down economy. They have the fans to thank, in part, for that of course. Those same fans that will be missing the game they love so much in the coming weeks.
Until Bettman offers something different, it’s pretty simple: the owners want more money and they want the players to have less. There doesn’t have to be a reason why anyone wants more money right? Some fans probably think the players are overpaid, especially the marginal ones. But with the exception, possibly, of salary arbitration, players who are overpaid are usually the result of bad decisions by general managers and owners.
By just about any measure Michael Frolik is overpaid. He scored five goals last season, was often a healthy scratch and only came on very late in the year with a decent, but short, postseason run. He made $3 million in actual salary last season with a salary cap hit of $2.3 million over the course of three seasons overall, including the next two. But he wasn’t overpaid because of the system, he was overpaid because Stan Bowman made a bad decision. Coming off an 11-goal season the year before, Frolik became a restricted free-agent with no other offers and nowhere to go except overseas if he didn’t want to play in the NHL. Bowman was bidding against nobody but himself. Frolik’s salary went from $850,000 to $3 million. The Hawks were required to give him a slight raise but went far beyond that.
Even though Steve Montador was an unrestricted free agent, due to hit the market, it’s widely known Bowman overpaid for him as well, and one year into that deal the Hawks already are seeking a replacement for Montador. The bottom line is general managers make mistakes --Dale Tallon made a few when it came to contracts -- and it shouldn’t be the players’ job to help the league fix those mistakes. Better decisions by better general managers should fix those problems. So if Bettman is worried about the escalation of salaries then he should start by telling his owners to be careful how much they spend and who they spend it on.
And whether it’s right or wrong to judge, spending loads of money on players just weeks before the expiration of the CBA was as big a mistake as any. Why Bettman didn’t tell his owners to tone it down -- even with fear of being accused of collusion? It was a pretty bad strategy and just adds to the confusion over his position. As Minnesota is spending $98 million on two players this past summer, the league is working the system so those players don’t see that kind of money. It just doesn’t smell right. And the players have gotten that whiff and aren’t happy. What can they do? Where is the leverage besides angry fans taking up the cause?
ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun wrote recently that the players could turn the tables on the commissioner by telling him they want to get rid of the salary cap. Notions like that are good ones even if unrealistic. The players need to take the fight to the league instead of hoping public appeals will move things along. Tell Bettman the players will refuse to sign a new CBA this year OR next if he doesn’t come down from his demands by a certain date.
Bettman might not care about his legacy in regards to having three work stoppages, but would he really stomach two consecutive lost seasons? We know he’ll swallow one, he already has under his tenure. Find a pressure point for him and squeeze as hard as possible because right now, no matter how unified the players are, things will go down the same way as last time: as soon as the players cave we’ll have hockey. They’ll have to do something drastic to avoid that scenario from playing out.
Drastic might be the only thing Bettman reacts to and maybe not even then. If the picture many paint is correct then the people “inside the room” are as confused by him as the rest of us. That doesn’t bode well for hockey in the near future.