This summer, while the owners were getting ready to demand limits on the length of contracts, the Minnesota Wild’s Craig Leipold, a noted negotiations hawk, signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts that would be way beyond the boundaries the owners are now insisting on. Later in the summer, Flyers owner Ed Snider, another hawk, signed Nashville’s Shea Weber to a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet, which the Predators were forced to match in order to have any credibility as a franchise going forward.
In spite of all this, the players have agreed to a 50-50 split of hockey revenues and to limits on the length of contracts. The owners have moved a little since their unreal opening offers but would still win a huge victory if they signed the offer the players have put on the table today.
But it isn’t good enough.
Instead of sitting down with the federal mediators who have been involved for almost a month now and hammering out the final details of the deal, the owners have gone home for the holidays — but not before taking the players to court to try to stop them from filing an antitrust lawsuit.
Without getting too technical, here’s what that is about: The union voted last week to authorize its board to file a “disclaimer of interest.” This is a legal shortcut to decertifying. It would allow the players, because they would no longer be a union at that point, to file an antitrust lawsuit against the owners. That’s the last thing the owners want. In 1995, when baseball owners tried to field non-union teams, the baseball union — led by Fehr — took the owners to federal court and won, ending the strike.
That was a different case than this because baseball owners were trying to unilaterally end free agency and arbitration. But if a court were to find the hockey owners have not bargained in good faith, it could order the lockout ended.
Most fans really don’t care who is right and who is wrong and who is taking whom to court and why. They just want to see hockey again. Hockey fans are probably more loyal than fans of any of the other major sports. In 2005-06, the year after the lost season, NHL attendance actually upticked slightly.
That likely won’t happen this time around. Even those who love the game are heartily sick of the discord.
It may well take a judge to save hockey from itself. As of this moment, no one running the game seems to care even a little bit about seeing any kind of save — kick, glove or stick — anytime in the near future.
For previous columns by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.