NHL Owners Must Improve Labor Relations with Players.

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.


  1. I agree, though I think it remains to be seen whether NHL fan goodwill has been seriously tested or not. I think that here in Canada it likely won’t ever be too seriously tested, but I have a feeling that a lot of the non-traditional markets are going to be just about back to ground zero in terms of building fan bases. Some of the locations that were just starting to build some momentum are going to be hurting dearly from this work stoppage. But that is just my opinion, we won’t know for sure until things get rolling again, whenever that may be.

    • I agree Ken, I believe there will be fall out in the ‘non-traditional’ markets as well. Aren’t these the same weak markets that need protection? Seems kind of ironic that a lock-out that’s supposed to help protect them (along with other issues of course) may actually be very detrimental to their futures. I still think this whole thing has been carefully orchestrated by Mr Bettman and the league owners.

  2. I would say the fans are more or less disinterested than angry. We as fans have been through this before and this time around apathy would seem to be the key word.

    I have a dumb question. Why is it the owners responsibility to “improve” labour relations? If the players don’t like the working conditions they do have options…..btw the reason anti-trust is not a concern as unlike NFL/MLB/NBA the players have multiple alternatives to the NHL, beginning with the KHL. If an anti-trust suit was filed all the NHL has to say is look at O’Reilly signing in the KHL. And on the topic of working conditions…..what is wrong with them? First class travel/hotels/staffing and support makes their lives rather comfortable I would think.

    And lets look at the “decades of mistrust”. Hmmm, okay. In the last 2 decades, players salaries have improved 1000%…..yes 1000% or 10 times, my god I would never trust my boss if he provided me that opportunity. And lets talk about that “salary cap” the players were “forced” to take and fought tough and nail………if it was so horrible, why are they fighting tough and nail to keep that EXACT deal??? Boy did the owners show they cant be trusted on that one….oh by the way salaries doubled in that one too.

    Despite the hyperbole, the league is not a partnership, never was, never will be. The trouble is people still compare the need for a union back to the Ted Lindsay era (who has come out on the owners side this time around), to todays “abused and misused” players.

    Replacing Bettman would only soothe the egos of those who have looked for a scapegoat. As far as the people who Bettman is responsible to….THE OWNERS…..they are very pleased with the job he has done, and will continue to do in the future.

    This animosity towards Bettman continually smacks of pettiness and is as logical as people blaming their wife’s lawyer for their divorce……when the real reason for the bitterness is usually staring them in the face in the nearest mirror.

  3. Old Soldier’s comments make me want to barf. If players’ salaries have skyrocketed, then the owners must be making billions. By the way, the guy in Boston who’s leading the Hawk brigade among owners must need a two-sided mirror to check each of his faces. He’s the same guy who made damn sure he beat the system before the last CBA expired.
    Players do have options and so do fans – let’s lock out the owners and their spoiled little baby commissioner.

  4. Last week when Mario Lemieux, one of the most respected figures in National Hockey League history, and co-owner Ron Burkle showed up at last weeks meetings I thought that we were going to see a deal get done. But Mario has let me down again. What I don’t understand about him is that he has played the game and made enough money to be an owner. Why is he now continuing to take money from the players, they went down from 57% to 50% and you (Mario) want to take more from the guys that use to be your team mates. You weren’t bitching how much you were making when you played hockey. But now you are bitching how much more you wants to make. And who are you taking away from?
    Sad buddy that you haven’t said a word ,so what if you had to pay a fine of $100,000 Senators owner spoke out and I don’t think he played a game of hockey.
    See how Crosby is the NHLPA front guy and respected by all fans – where are you at? You use to be respected stop hiding, come out and tell the world that this non-sense needs to stop and a deal needs to get done now and no don’t pick the player$ pockets any more.
    Ahh forget it – go put some olive oil on your face to look pretty!