With Winter Classic cancellation, NHL proves to be own worst enemy

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The cancellation of the Winter Classic tells us at least three things about the NHL lockout.

One, that the league really does have no interest in reaching a conciliatory agreement with the NHLPA. Two, it confirms the league is out to break the players, like water freezing out of cracks in concrete. And three, that the NHL simply doesn’t trust itself. 

On the first point, the leagues lack of interest in brokering a cooperative “shared sacrifice” type of agreement is underscored by their unwillingness to engage in 11th hour negotiations beforehand.

It’s really too straightforward to be ignored. The NHL has continually rejected NHLPA attempts to meet and negotiate, and whether those attempts were sincere or PR-motivated, the leagues’ non-attempts by contrast are telling.

In addition to lost ticket sales and lost merchandise revenue, the cancellation of the Winter Classic likely jeopardizes the leagues meager relationship with HBO and NBC Sports, and robs the league of its only marquee in-season event, the only real NHL related-anything that attracts some wide attention in the United States.

For a league which often competes with professional poker for television ratings, the cancellation of this event is of course enormous. But the league leadership killed it without even going a single round with the Players Association beforehand, and that says everything about what kind of agreement the NHL is after: one that involves the NHLPA begging on its hands and its knees.

On the second point, the leagues intention to break the players union is underscored by their timely leak — just hours after the Winter Classic cancellation — of a vague and unofficial offer to have the owners honor the values lost on all current contracts. This is the murky “make whole” provision, which has become the primary battleground concept in the dispute over lowering the players share of projected revenues to a 50/50 split with owners.

The non-offer was immediately downplayed by both sides, and eventually dismissed by Donald Fehr in a memo to the players, but the purpose of the leak was achieved. By (possibly) offering to “make whole” the lost value of current contracts, the NHL is also attempting to steer the entire process in the direction of splitting the union — between players with current long-term contracts and players looking at near-future contracts.

Currently, the entire NHLPA membership is fighting to have the value of current contracts honored. And if the eventual settlement process devolves into one where those current contracts are “made whole” by the owners, at the expense of lower salaries and decreased negotiating rights in the future, the PA is essentially split between which group-interests to satisfy, and which group-interests to sacrifice.  

Whether that split could amount to toxicity or factionalism is beyond the point. The point is that such a split is clearly the NHLs intention, strategy, and end-game.

All told, the events of this week were an ugly three-step dance that ended with the following: A clearer picture of the mindset currently steering NHL leadership, at least as it’s orchestrated today — a mindset that’s more than willing to take a series of massive financial body-blows this year, so long as it leads to the establishment of a fool-proof profit apparatus in years following.

Which brings us to point three.

Like any successful business, the NHL wants profits and growth to both be forgone conclusions, regardless of managerial incompetence or internal market fluctuations.

It’s not enough that each owner has full control over whether they pay Player X, on the downswing of their career, ridiculously large sums of money to terms that end in that players early 40’s.

It’s not enough that owners collectively concede to financing financial sink-holes like the Phoenix Coyotes.

The NHL wants to insulate itself from itself — from the kind of complete tomfoolery that sees Christian Ehrhoff become the second highest cap-hit in the league two years ago, and then sees a parade of owners lining up to sign 36 year old Shane Doan to four and five year deals worth upwards of 30 million dollars this year.

Unfortunately for the Players Association, the NHL has a lot of fools running a lot of its franchises, and so its crushing and obliteration has become goal one in the NHLs “Ownership for Dummies” restructuring plans.

The NHLPA, like any union, does its best to maximize the competitive value and remuneration of its members. And in a free agent market system, that means something just short of the skies limit, putting the onus for restraint into the hands of the owners.

If the past several years have taught us anything it’s that many — not all — NHL owners have something in the vicinity of zero restraint.

And so it would seem that the NHL, if nothing else, has successfully diagnosed the problem with the NHL: The NHL.

And in the end, that has to count for something. 

More in For the Love of the Game

NHL owners are at war with their own incompetence

The comic absurdity of the NHL lockout has reached new heights. If you still have the stomach for it, consider the following line of argument as it bleeds on into the future.  Throughout this...

NHL plays dangerous gambit with fans

NHL Deputy Commisioner Bill Daly spooned out a dollop of napalm, and served it up as ice cream.

Nothing to Fehr? Glimmers of hope despite NHL lockout setback

Will the parties in the NHL dispute conclude that sharing a 3.3 billion-dollar pie is better than letting it maggot-laden mush?
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.