NHL fans have grown weary, even disgusted, of the ongoing lockout, blaming the league and the NHLPA for failing to reach a new collective bargaining agreement and placing this season in jeopardy.
The current lockout is merely the continuation of decades of contentious labor relations between the NHL owners and players, which intensified over the past twenty years, resulting in a players strike and three lockouts.
Critics of the NHLPA suggest their antagonistic attitude toward the owners has contributed to the tension between the two sides, but the players come by it honestly. The owners and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman have done almost nothing to improve relations between the two sides.
It could be argued the players should initiate reconciliation, but given the decades of mistrust built up toward the owners, that won’t happen anytime soon. The players honestly believe any conciliatory moves on their part will be perceived by the owners as weakness.
Because the owners achieved near-total victory over the PA in the previous lockout, the players are digging in their heels. They’re fearful if they give in this time, it will be the end of their union, allowing the owners a free hand to set whatever terms they please.
During the last lockout, the league – led by commissioner Gary Bettman and his lieutenants Bill Daly and Bob Batterman – effectively employed “divide and conquer” tactics to exploit weaknesses in the PA solidarity and the membership’s faith in then-director Bob Goodenow.
The result, following a season-killing lockout, was a players association in disarray, struggling to find a suitable successor for the ousted Goodenow. The players were dispirited, but also upset over how the league ran roughshod over them.
It was bad enough the players were forced to accept a salary cap they once swore they’d never accept, but the league did almost nothing afterward to establish a better working relationship with them. The players felt humiliated and helpless.
Having achieved what it wanted from the 2004-05 lockout, the league seemingly had no interest in the players’ humiliation. The owners felt they held the upper hand, and believed the players – fearful of losing another season and more money they’d never get back - would meekly accept whatever the league offered up in future.
The simmering resentment among the players who went through the previous lockout, and the concerns felt by new players over their contract rights, led to the NHLPA courting and eventually hiring former baseball union head Donald Fehr and his brother Steven. They wanted someone with experience dealing with difficult ownership to protect their rights and ensure they wouldn’t get steamrollered again.
Several times during the course of the previous CBA, Bettman liked to crow about the “partnership” between the owners and the players. It was obvious, however, this was a one-way partnership, with the league dictating the terms.
Had Bettman and company genuinely worked toward a true “partnership” with the NHLPA, perhaps the players wouldn’t have felt compelled to hire the Fehr brothers and the current lockout could have been avoided.
Once this new collective bargaining agreement is implemented, it is imperative it does all it can to strike a more conciliatory stance with the players.
The players are simply too snake-bitten to make the first move. They don’t trust the owners, especially the hardliners like Boston’s Jeremy Jacobs, Calgary’s Murray Edwards and Minnesota’s Craig Leipold, and they despise Bettman. After three lockouts in 18 years, the players have no intention to initiate an improved work relationship with him. They believe he’ll treat that position as weakness on their part, and try to squeeze them again with another lockout threat.
It’s up to the owners, especially those considered moderates, to establish a true working partnership with the players.
Replacing Bettman as league commissioner would be beneficial to the process, but it’s rumored he intends on staying on the job at least until 2017, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NHL.
For all Bettman’s power, he still owes his employment to the owners, and as long as he still has their confidence, he won’t be going anywhere.
Since Bettman will likely remain as commissioner for a while, he must change his approach toward the players and make consistent genuine efforts at improving the work relationship and the trust level with them.
For the NHL, there’s more at stake than just making nice with the PA. The fact remains every labor agreement between the two sides always ends in lockout, which sticks in the memory of NHL fans and sponsors.
If the continuous cycle of CBA and lockout continues, it will eventually affect the NHL fan base, and that in turn could affect the league’s efforts to attract and retain lucrative sponsorship. While NHL fan goodwill doesn’t appear to have been seriously tested this time around, it’s not limitless.
The NHL could have avoided this lockout had it made a real attempt over the previous CBA at conciliation with the players. Hopefully, the owners will make at least an effort at improving that relationship in the coming years.