In a high-stakes game of chicken, NHL players blinked, got plucked


July 24, 2005|By Ethan J. Skolnick

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - This isn't just one of the most lopsided sports labor outcomes in North American history.

It's among the most lopsided labor outcomes. It's among the most lopsided outcomes, period.

This is Reagan vs. Mondale.

Tyson vs. Spinks.

Jaguars vs. Dolphins.

Check that. Mondale won a state. Spinks lasted 91 seconds. The Dolphins managed a touchdown.

The NHL players were shut out, unless you count "earlier free agency" as a significant score.

The owners got nearly everything they sought and some things they didn't seek until the players kindly suggested them, like that 24 percent salary rollback. Owners got cost certainty, with a cap tied to league revenues.

The players? They got antsy. They got hosed.

This is a lesson to the next player membership that trusts its union leader too much until it's too late.

This is a warning to the next union leader who overestimates the will and nerve of members who are losing paychecks.

"Bill [Daly] and I are here to congratulate the players on ratifying the new agreement," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday in Toronto, after nearly 90 percent of the beaten players agreed to this regressive, repressive deal.

Why not congratulate? He had already checked off "humiliate" and "emasculate."

"We thought enough damage was done," the union president, Vancouver Canucks forward Trevor Linden, told ESPN.

They got out before Bettman got their firstborns, too.

So, yes, the commish won this conflict. He won big.

He can claim victory, if grave dancing is his thing. Nor will he be alone. Some sports fans, having grown weary and jealous of players growing rich without restraint, will, too. And maybe, just maybe, this will ultimately prove a victory for the league, if it can keep costs under control, foster competitive balance, improve the on-ice product, promote its players and get major networks and newspapers to take any notice again.

But this isn't about the victory.

It's about the loss.

It's spectacular.

It's breathtaking.

You must give such a defeat its due. You must stand back and salute.

And you must resist booing players this fall. You must hug. They will thank you.

"This was about givebacks from the beginning," Dallas Stars forward Bill Guerin told ESPN. "It was just a matter of how much."

You won't find rebates like these in your local electronics store.

"History will be able to speak as to whether it's a good deal for both sides," said Bob Goodenow, NHL union chief for now.

History will have to stop laughing first.

Right now, it's busting a gut.

"I think it's going to work fine, I really do," Goodenow said.

Please, stop. History can't take any more. History can't handle the hilarity. Someone, bring History a hankie.

So there they were Thursday, Bettman and Goodenow, suddenly bosom buddies after their personal rancor helped bring a once semi-major sport to a season-long stop.

There was Bettman, saying, "There's been too much made about a fragmented relationship." There was Goodenow, agreeing "totally."

Feel the love.

The players must find that priceless, after accepting everything they vowed they wouldn't and much too late for it to be seen as chivalrous. It's fine to take a strong negotiating stand, but a wise leader would have recognized these unique circumstances and the likely outcome and advised his members to bend a bit before losing more money, leverage and fan support by the day.

Now that it's done, the players must find it in themselves to move forward while holding the hands that poked them in the eyes and wouldn't stop scratching. Their salaries are tied to league revenues. It's a partnership. It's an opportunity.

"I believe you will see this agreement will have been a very effective and important catalyst in bringing us forward in ways we couldn't have without the right structure," Bettman said.

He has no excuses now. He must grow the game as promised under these preferred parameters. He must grow it in places like Phoenix, Anaheim, Florida and Carolina most of all, or else he must shrink the league.

He must grow it or go.

Goodenow? Need to hear more?

"We've got lots of ideas that I think we'll be able to entertain in depth and to implement and to reap the fruits of the result," he said.

He got a lemon. Anyone trust him to make lemonade?

Ethan J. Skolnick is a columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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