Both sides in NHL strike inexperienced

April 05, 1992|By Rich Hofmann | Rich Hofmann,Knight-Ridder News Service

So far, the only thing more predictable than the course the NHL strike has taken has been the size of the public yawn at the news. Nobody around here cares, folks, not even a little. But we'll get back to that.

Anybody who was paying even a little bit of attention knew that the NHL players union would be out on strike this spring. Anybody with even a smidgen of knowledge about the history of sports labor negotiations knew that this particular union, under this particular leadership, was absolutely, positively going to exchange hockey sticks for picket signs at some point.

It had to happen. It simply had to happen. And the reason can be summed up in one sentence: There had to be a hockey strike because the players and owners still don't trust each other.

You saw it in baseball a couple of times in the 1980s. You saw it in football a couple of times, too. And although baseball appears to have made some tentative strides on the trust scale, football is still in the Neanderthal stage, with their grievances now about to be played out in a federal district courtroom in Minneapolis. Basketball is the model, of course, but it took a near disaster in that sport for everyone to come to their accommodation.

And now we have hockey.

Happy 75th birthday, NHL.

Why did it have to happen? Because the relationship between players and owners in hockey is still an immature one. That's not immature as in childish, but immature as in young. The hockey labor relationship in 1992 is where the auto workers were in the 1930s. Some management types scoff that every union has a strike in it some time, and there is some truth to that. And the fact is that this union has never pushed as hard as it could, and that this union hired new leadership for these negotiations, and that this new leadership was hired to push.

It is not the purpose here to get into the rightness or the wrongness of the union's demands and the owners' counterproposals. That's not the purpose because there is no right and wrong in these things. That cannot be stated often enough: There is no right and wrong in a labor negotiation. This is simply a test of economic power, nothing more, nothing less.

But the point is that the players have never attempted to use their power. When Alan Eagleson, the human conflict-of-interest, led the union, there was never a strike and never a feeling of satisfaction on the players' part.

Some management people say that the Eagleson deals were good for the players, but that he was a lousy communicator. Maybe that's true, although I doubt it. Regardless, the fact is that the players think that the 1980s were much better for the owners than they were for the players. That's what they think, and that's why they're trying to make up for lost time in the 1990s.

That's the players. As for management, frankly, you are seeing the owners make a lot of the mistakes that managements tend to make as the pressure builds. A couple of weeks ago, NHL president John Ziegler wrote a letter to each NHL player that accompanied a 30-page information packet on the labor situation. Local club management also tried to sway players. According to published reports, Ziegler said in the letter that he wanted the players to have the facts that "were essential to making decisions . . . rather than be misled by rumors and second-hand newspaper reports."

This letter was rank amateurism. Any player who was not offended by the implication that its union was doing it a disservice should have been. And any notion that management could break the solidarity of the union before a single shot had been fired was crazy. These people just don't understand the process. It is appropriate to take your case to the newspapers. It is not appropriate to go over the heads of the union and directly to the players. It is, in fact, counterproductive.

But those are the things you learn as a labor relationship matures. For years, we were led to believe that hockey players were different, somehow. We were led to believe that because they were largely Canadians, and because of the Canadian passion for hockey, they would settle for what was described as benevolent paternalism on the part of the owners.

But then the union got the right to publish salaries, which let everyone know where he stood and, in many cases, where he wallowed.

And then the players got a taste of higher salaries that management willingly paid, thanks to some daring free-agent moves led by the St. Louis Blues.

And then, well, this became a revolution of rising expectations. And the very real notion that this sport doesn't produce very much profit -- about $1 million a team, by the players' calculations, which are the most optimistic numbers out there -- has somehow gotten lost in a call to make up for the depressed salaries of the '80s, a call by the union to prove, for the first time, that We Are Strong.

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