The lockout of NHL players that dragged on for 113 days and cost the league more than half the season was a battle over money, as all collective bargaining negotiations are. More than that, though, it became a battle of egos, which is why it took so long to resolve issues that should have been agreed upon sometime last summer.
Gary Bettman was absolutely set on “winning,” because he had won his first two CBA negotiations as NHL commissioner — one costing more than half a season, the second costing an entire season. But his opponent this time, Donald Fehr, also had a perfect record — albeit in another sport.
In the end, they both lost. Hockey lost, and the sport’s remarkably loyal fans lost more than anyone.
Those fans will get a 48-game regular season with games coming at them nonstop and a lot of teams playing tired as the regular season ends. They will get Stanley Cup playoffs that will end shortly before the Fourth of July, and they will get a season in which they won’t see any foes from the opposite conference at all. So if you are a Washington Capitals fan, you won’t see your team play the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings unless both teams make it to this season’s finals.
When the ice chips finally cleared early Sunday morning, the owners walked away feeling as if they had closed loopholes in the salary cap and made some extra hockey revenue. The players walked away knowing they will still be very well-compensated — the minimum salary for an NHL player will go from $525,000 a year to $750,000 a year by the end of this deal.
Good for everyone. All it took was half a year of sniping and backbiting to get this done. The owners started it in July, demanding that the revenue split go from 57 percent to the players to 57 percent for the owners. Not only was there no way the players were going to come close to accepting those numbers, but such an outrageous opening offer set an angry tone that lasted almost six months.
The owners have tried — sometimes not so quietly — to portray Fehr as the black hat in all this, saying he wanted to stonewall and stall more than he wanted to truly negotiate.
That’s a convenient story line except for one thing: Fehr was still running the baseball players’ union when the first Bettman-led lockout took place in 1994 and was also still in baseball eight years ago when the entire NHL season was lost to a lockout. He was not the common denominator in any of this, but his presence clearly did make a difference for the union.
The owners can — and will — declare victory. They got the players to agree to a 50-50 split of revenues, and they got a term limit on contracts of seven years — eight for a player re-signing with the same team. That means there won’t be any more 13- or 14-year contracts like the ones some owners were handing out this summer (at the same time they were collectively demanding those limits). The owners also got next year’s salary cap lowered from a little more than $70 million to $64.3 million.
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.