Commentary

NHL, NHLPA have abused our trust

Updated: November 20, 2012, 3:00 PM ET
By John Buccigross | ESPN.com

Wherever I go, people keep asking me, "Are you bummed about the NHL lockout?"

My answer? "No." (Then I say I am bummed only for those NHL team employees and fellow broadcasters who aren't getting fully paid. That angers me. More below.)

Listen, I'm a hockey fan and an NHL fan. Youth, high school, prep school, Junior, NCAA, minor league, NHL, World Junior Championship, Frozen Four, Swedish Elite, WHAAAAAAT-EVAH. It all entertains me. No NHL game has ever captivated me like watching my oldest (now retired), Brett, play and today watching 13-year-old Jackson wheel, sauce and snipe. #bardownhandsupcrowdcheersmomcries

Today, I'm even less of an NHL fan and more of the above enterprises. (You think people aren't making money off your 12-year-old's "elite" travel sweat? Think again, Ma and Pa. And make that check out to Coach Ca$h-a-lot).

Two NHL betrayals in eight years? No, thanks. One infidelity changes a relationship forever, even if one side decides to outwardly forgive. Two? The relationship is either over lawfully or in the heart. It will never be the same, even after it continues and we continue watching games. You can take your Peaches and Herb, throw it in a 40-ounce juicer and pour it slowly on the sidewalk in mourning, humming Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know."

I and many other adults will now be distrustful of the NHL as long as the principle principals remain. Like baseball was after its canceled World Series, the game has been irrevocably stained. The scarlet letter is "G" for "greed." Some baseball fans never came back after the 1994 strike that canceled a World Series and ended all strikes. Now there are only lockouts. Or really contracts that end. Leagues can't afford to work on expired agreements because some teams can't afford to bleed more money and leagues don't want players striking before the playoffs like the baseball players did in 1994.

NHL Fans
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesYoung fans will forget this lockout, but adults will never forget living through two work stoppages in eight years.

As with baseball fans not forgetting 1994, NHL fans won't forget this time around. The truly sad part is that some people will not just leave the NHL but leave the sport entirely. All hockey suffers when the head is severed.

Yes, we are all connected in this mess. The mite, the pee-wee, the preppy, Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau, Minnesota's Nick Bjugstad, Sean Whitney of the ECHL's San Francisco Bulls and AHL Hershey Bear Jon DiSalvatore. The NHL's sins are felt across the hockey board. We play together on one big, perfect, outdoor sheet of new ice. We all enjoy chicken parm.

The NHL, its logos and the Stanley Cup are the birdhouse in our souls. The lighthouse. Instead of compromise, they choose to act like Washington, D.C. They turned their backs on the rest of the game, arms folded in that wine-drinking, cigar-smoking, self-absorbed way.

Screw 'em. We're set. Yes, sometimes one side IS more to blame. It is not 50/50, even as they slog to 50/50.

In the long term, the sport will survive because, like all excellent sporting enterprises, it regenerates with youth. Gigantic crowds followed Bobby Jones play golf in 1929, and throngs watched Tiger Woods in 1999. They will follow Rory McIlroy when he wins the Masters next April with a Nike swoosh on his hat.

Ten-year-olds won't remember this NHL work stoppage. When Sidney Crosby is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2030, a 28-year-old hockey journalist will write of Crosby's amazing career with joy, innocence and sentiment. The game is irresistible. It belongs to the young, and thus it will never die.

In the #rockoutwithyourNHLlockout meantime, there is plenty of great hockey to consume in North America. Gary Bettman's and Donald Fehr's, ah, um, "relieving oneself" contest will not raise my blood pressure by one number. (I've got to get on Grantland so I can use naughty words. Simmons, call my agent.)

Wait, that's right, I don't have an agent. Like the NHL (Bettman) and the players (Fehr), just about every newsperson you watch on TV has an agent who the TV person pays anywhere from 5-10 percent of his or her gross paycheck. (Athletes usually pay around 3 percent.)

Besides not being able to stomach paying someone 10 percent of my gross for information and leverage I can easily find and implement myself, the biggest reason for my going sans agent is that I want to control the process and the narrative so I know: 1) What's going on? 2) What's being offered? 3) What is the tone? 4) Who's really working for me and not some other client? When I had an agent, I didn't feel in control and felt uneasy. Like Sully Sullenberger, flying to Cincinnati on one of them regional airlines.

Cast of
AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren CalabreseBucci says it is better to bargain for yourself than to use an agent, although that is easier to do when you have the relevance of a coaster on "The Big Bang Theory."

The players and some owners have given that power up to someone else. I understand both sides are "collectively" bargaining, whereas ESPN and I bargain on behalf of just me and the corporation, which makes it much simpler. The fact that I have the telecommunications relevance of a coaster on "The Big Bang Theory" also makes negotiations a five-meeting venture.

The 2005 NHL CBA was 454 pages. My contract with ESPN is three pages. Well, two and a half. Just how I like it. I show up. I do "SportsCenter," I write about hockey, and I do play-by-play of the Frozen Four. And they pay me. Match a little for my 401(k). (Disney, ESPN's parent company, still has a pension!) Seems fair to me. Could I have gotten a little more at ESPN or left for more money somewhere else with an agent? Maybe. Maybe not. Doesn't matter.

Fair is what you think is fair. I know what I want and what makes me happy and don't focusing on getting every last single penny coming my way. I want less crap around me anyway. The last person I want to be like is like the person who wants every last freaking penny.

Yes, the players, especially those with millions banked (Iginla, Brodeur et al.) have to think a little bit about others coming after them, but the financial cat is out of the bag. Players are making more money than ever, and they will continue to make large amounts of money in the NHL because the incentive to win championships is what pays. Coaches will coach to get a better contract, GMs GM to get a better contract, and owners own to increase their franchise value. The way all this is accomplished? GETTING GOOD PLAYERS! And winning playoff games. Teams will ALWAYS pay for them. They have forever. These are competitive, proud people. They will continue to do it because even more is on the line.

If the players really cared about one another, they would fight to raise the minimum salary. Currently, it's $525,000. Make it a million. Let's redistribute that wealth while we're at it, boys.

Put all the NHL owners in a room and five players from each team in another room. And then line up the owners on a dais with 30 chairs in front of the players' much bigger room and gave me a Frank Luntz-endorsed cordless microphone to mediate the Q and A and hash out some real revenue-sharing/contract restrictor-plate language, and I'm sure we could have had figured this thing out in five days in late August. Then the lawyers have another week to draw it up. Boom. Done. Drop the mic and grab the make-up bag.

Then both sides could save the millions they pay Bettman and Fehr and have even more for themselves. Would the Columbus Blue Jackets gladly take Bettman's salary the next 10 years? You betcha! That's about $100 million. The agents are killing the process as they wait for their time to make their best offer come December. They are prostituting the game, injuring the game, to make a negotiating point. People don't need NHL hockey. It's a choice in a world with more choices than ever. Way more than in 2004-05.

The other issue at hand is that both Fehr and Bettman are very good at what they do. They are smart, ruthless and don't care what you think about them. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly and former NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly would have struck a deal by now. I also believe that Fehr and the players don't believe that Bettman has the stones to cancel ANOTHER season, which would essentially bury his legacy and cement his everlasting image as a toothless villain. I agree, and that's why I have felt all along we would have a season.

It's almost comical that players and owners, and you the fan, are relying on two men with not one hockey cell in their body to determine your fate. I won't let that happen with my love of the sport. I've moved on to other hockey. I watch, read and follow more college hockey than ever before, which will continue whether or not the lockout ends.

My message to the NHL player is to think long and hard about is this: The worker is ALWAYS going to have to take less. ALWAYS. Get over it. We are ALL cattle.

And get over an incredibly low, disrespectful first offer. Welcome to real world. All your fellow workers out here in Real Worldsville receive those. I have a buddy who works in the public school system in Miami who got his first raise in five years. It was a $1,000. (The shift then blames to the NHL to not getting where it is now by Sept. 1, but maybe it sensed it would never be enough for Fehr. So far, Fehr has cost only the players money with lost, never-to-be-cashed paychecks.)

Yes, "talent" will always have more leverage than the average North American worker, and NHL players are not your average union. They have all-world physical talent in their chosen field. That has value in a multibillion-dollar industry where pride and profit escalates profits and thus salaries. And you, the player, are reaping it. Wildly. As Keith Jones would tell me over and over again while I was working on his book "Jonesy" with him: "It's all fantasyland, man."

But the more games are canceled, the more the players will lose -- even if they think they will win. CBAs come and go. Careers are short. Players are EXTREMELY well paid. Live below their means and many can be set for a life of choice. Sacrifice a year (or more) of that for ... what? The players would be smart to push for a deal. Your business is your play; they are NOT separated. If you want to sit, by all means sit. If you want to play, fly charter and stay in Ritz-Carltons and enjoy a pension and summers off, tell Fehr to make a deal. And the season would start in two weeks.

I've written in this space a million times: I want NHL players and coaches and employees to be highly paid. I want good, talented, hard-working, selfless, come-from-middle-class people to get highly paid. Better they have it than an NHL ownership group that inherited it or fleeced taxpayers to increase their franchise value and thus their portfolio and wine cellar.

Gary Bettman
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesBucci says Gary Bettman should not be allowed to hand out the Stanley Cup anymore.

But, get rid of the salary cap? The NHL fears that is Fehr's deep, dark secret and goal. Are you kidding? Do you know how well you players do BECAUSE of the cap and the floor? Do you know how many Miami Marlins there would be in the NHL if there were no cap and no floor? Do you know how many third-line centers and sixth defensemen are overpaid BECAUSE of the cap? Every NHL team really believes it can win the Cup (seven different winners in seven postcap years), and boy do they try every summer, wildly overpaying many of you. And I cheer every time you get it. I'm happy for your luck.

Because, in the end, it's all mostly luck for all of us. Lucky when Daddy has hundreds of millions and gives you a cushy front-office job. Lucky you have good genetics and loving parents. Lucky, for me, to live in a country that loves sports so much it can support so many 24-hour sports cable enterprises and lucky enough that I work for the biggest one that gives me free Disney passes.

It's all luck, and then we die. Don't be so caught up in greed and money and "winning." This isn't the Industrial Revolution; Donald Fehr isn't Che Guevara.

Be smart, make aggressive compromises/deals, and grab your hockey bag. I know you're going nuts anyway. You're still going to be rich, and the fans will still love you and hate the suits.

And hate the suits they will. Like I said, sometimes one side is more to blame, and the league has to garner most of the blame in this mess with Fehr only now closing fast.

Bettman should not be allowed to pass out the Stanley Cup to the winning team anymore. The deserved boos toward him will sully the moment. He should do the honorable thing and recuse himself from this beautiful and meaningful ceremony involving the ultimate symbol of hockey excellence.

Bettman and a handful of owners have blindsided the fans. For years, we heard "partnership" and "business partners" and then a $2 billion TV deal with NBC and wildly profitable Stanley Cup wins for the Bruins and Blackhawks, a new arena for the Penguins, an obvious upgrade from Atlanta to Winnipeg, an amazing array of talent entering the league year after year, and then suddenly, the whole thing is big, pile of steaming doggy wallop? Again, the partnership word is a fraud.

Yes, there needs to be adjustments in revenue sharing to help some teams, because we are selling competition. And the players should not share the bulk of this sharing. The teams should. They are the investors. They reap the windfalls.

As Peter Keating wrote in ESPN The Magazine in October, "Last year, NFL teams shared about 60 percent of $9 billion in revenues, while NHL teams shared about $150 million of $3.3 billion, only about 4.5 percent." The sharing has to increase. I understand one can never tell when a market, a country or a league will suffer downturns. Again, these things can easily be dealt with by a room full of smart people.

I believe having more NHL teams creates more fans and an expansive feel that is good for the game and will bring more and different people into the game. I believe over time, like 30 to 50 years, that will show dividends. The NHL had only 4 U.S. teams in the late 1960s. It remains a young league.

A reasonable, concerted effort a year ago could have moved this thing along. The transparency the NHL showed late in the game would have been better received instead of cynically viewed as desperation. Fehr's personality is now a negative and adding fuel to the fire, but to use an elementary school phrase, "He started it!"

Yes, no more Bettman at the Stanley Cup handoff ceremony. I've been one of the few people who feel Bettman has been overall GOOD for the league, despite his heavy starched-shirt personality and defensive nature. He has given the game a larger North American footprint, and I say that is good. If you don't think hockey can work or grow in some places, then you don't believe in the game.

Yes, instead of Bettman passing out the Cup, have a legend from the winning team make the presentation and maybe a contest-winning fan. You know, the people who REALLY pay the players', coaches' and commissioner's salaries. The young working men and women season-ticket holders in the 300 sections, the purchaser of team merchandise, the old couple on the couch watching on TV.

The fight goes on. But so does the hockey. There is plenty out there. No need to get angry. You've got choices. Love the game. Hate the league.


As I mentioned, only one portion of this lockout bothers me: team employees losing jobs or pay. Here is an email I received last week from one of those NHL team employees who has survived.

Honestly, it's difficult to explain the mood right now. Malaise? I think that's the best way to put it. The days are getting shorter, the air is getting colder, both things that feel like hockey, yet the only news we get is that the sides are "talking" (sort of). It just feels off. At this point, no one in our office really thinks anything in the news means anything anymore. We frankly don't care. One thing I find very interesting is that the average employee in our organization doesn't side with one side or another. Most have sympathy for the players' gripe that all contracts be honored (mostly because of the last three summers), but we also understand that the league can't survive when only a handful [of teams] turn a profit and another handful can choose between a slight profit or spending to the cap. What fuels the indifference too is the constant spin we see every day in the press. The average person here sees through the B.S. We're not idiots, nor is the average fan, so it would be great if the NHL and NHLPA would stop talking to us like we'll believe anything they say. It's arrogant. All that does is damage the trust between the fans and those groups. Why can't they get that?

As for our staff, no new cuts since the last time we talked, but many people have started leaving on their own. We've lost a couple a week for the last three weeks, and that makes sense if you figure a lot of people started looking after they started canceling large chunks of the regular season. I expect this to continue. Those who are leaving don't want to leave. They like the work and love the team. They simply want stability.


John Buccigross' email address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.

John Buccigross | email

SportsCenter anchor
John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.