In many ways, though, it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Not only have both sides lost millions of dollars — perhaps billions by losing more than half a season — they also have damaged their image with those who care about their sport. What’s more, Bettman and the owners have infuriated NBC, their television partner, by costing the network the Winter Classic and the All-Star Game, not to mention more than three months of inventory desperately needed by the NBC Sports Network.
If there is one thing no commissioner wants to do, it is upset his television partners. That’s especially true in hockey with the new 10-year, $2 billion deal that NBC recently gave the NHL. Bettman has been running the NHL for almost 20 years, and he has helped bring some semblance of financial stability to the league — although he made a mistake in over-expanding, which created enough weak franchises that getting a salary cap and a 24 percent rollback in salaries eight years ago wasn’t enough to avoid another work stoppage.
But he clearly has come out of this battle weakened. He did not deliver on his promise to take down Fehr. If anything, the fact that the owners ended up accepting a deal that was, for all intents and purposes on the table for them to accept in early December and was rejected, makes it clear that Fehr’s willingness to go to court frightened the league.
If you listen to the owners, they weren’t at all afraid of that, believing that no U.S. court would rule in favor of a Canadian-based union. The baseball owners believed advisers who told them no court would rule against them in 1995 and lived to rue that day and that expectation.
The next 11 days will be about everyone getting back on the ice and beginning to talk hockey again, which is good news for all who care about the sport. There was one key issue left undecided: whether the league will take part in the Olympics in 2014. This should be a no-brainer. Olympic hockey has been a boon to the NHL, especially in 2010 when the gold medal game between the United States and Canada turned into a classic.
There are some on the Bettman/ownership side who don’t like stopping the season for two weeks for the Olympics. If they should prevail and the NHL pulls out of the Olympics, it will be a huge setback for the sport.
Hockey will survive, regardless. It lost an entire season and attendance actually went up slightly the next year. It has now gone through three bitter, damaging lockouts, and no doubt will find light at the end of this tunnel, too.
That’s testimony to hockey fans’ love of their sport. It doesn’t mean what just happened wasn’t ludicrous. The money issues could have and should have been resolved in August. Sadly, it took until now to finally resolve the ego issues.
For previous columns by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.