Taking Sides

Fun fact: when he thinks no one is looking, Gary Bettman likes to daydream about what it would be like to have a moustache.

It was somewhere between 2 and 3 AM when I met the NHLPA guy. It was June, mere days after the end of the playoffs, those first few days of summer when hot nights are still a welcome novelty and you’re actually a little bit grateful to have a Saturday night with no games to watch. He was a low-level PR guy, I was a low-level media girl, and we stood on the patio in the sweltering dark, watching streetcars rattle by and contemplating higher forces of hockey beyond our control.

“Everyone is going to side with the owners,” he said, taking a hard, bitter drag on his cigarette. “Just like last time. The fans always side with the owners.”


“They just do. Doesn’t matter what we say. The owners always win the PR battle”

He said it as if it was a certainty, with the I know the ways of this hard world better than you, little grasshopper weariness that hockey guys often seem to take with fans and bloggers and other naïve creatures. Three things I know: the world is round, the trees are green, and the NHL owners will always win fan sympathy. He could not have been more absolutely sure that the PA would be crucified in the media. And, as it turns out, he could not have been more absolutely wrong.

Among people who write hockey, whether from sleek glassy offices or dingy basements, sympathy for the Players’ Association has been nearly overwhelming. Some are impassioned and some are muted, some wear hearts on their sleeves and others pretend to have no hearts at all, but ever since the owners’ initial proposal, which amounted to little more than a demand for more money and that players save them from their terrible CBA-circumvention habit, fans and media have mostly come down on the side of the players.

However, as in anything in hockey, the second a majority of people take a given position, there is a backlash, and in this case, it goes something like this: there is no morality in CBA negotiations. It’s nothing but a cash grab on either side. The players are just as bad as the owners, just as greedy, just as wrong. There’s no reason to have any sympathy for either side, and in fact, it’s wrong to have sympathy. Sympathy is bias, sympathy is emotion, sympathy is bringing moral reasoning into a fundamentally amoral arena. Business deals should be talked about like business deals, in terms of leverage and percentages and bottom lines. Everything else is just useless sentiment. Everything else is just buying into the PA’s PR offensive.

This position has a lot of things going for it: it sounds pragmatic, objective, and mature. It captures the cold, hard, slightly righteous cynicism that is the natural counterpoint to the fuzzy love and howling rage that sports generally inspire. Anywhere time in the hockey season, in any subsection of the hockey world, show me an issue where people mostly speak from the heart- a beloved player, an unexpected streak of victories, a nostalgic reflection- and I will show you a half-dozen contrarian blog posts arguing that all this icky feeling is wrong wrong wrong. It is a constant push-pull in the way we think, talk, and write about games, between idealism and realism, our desires and our reason.

Mostly, these backlashes are good for the game, if only because an opinion without a counterpoint risks becoming a mindless cliché, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all equally valid. And, particularly in this case, I think the backlash against player sympathy in the media and among fans reflects both a misunderstanding of the role fans and media play in hockey and a high-handed contempt for the very notion of having feelings about business practices. It is one thing to have a different view from the mainstream and make an argument for it. It’s another to dismiss all opposing arguments as nothing but herdlike irrationality and ‘falling for Fehr’s PR campaign’ (I imagine the PR guy, somewhere, outside some bar, reading those comments on his iPhone and laughing uproariously at the odd vicissitudes of public opinion).

The problem with the backlash isn’t its contention that there is greed on both sides, or that business negotiations are amoral. Both of those are true, and if you’re going to be placing bets on the eventual settlement that will come to pass, you’d be well-advised to remember both things. No, the problem is with its contention that there is something illegitimate about fans or writers taking sides, or getting emotional, or caring. Is it just a money grab? Yeah, sure. Will the owners probably win, regardless of whether or not their proposal is right or just or good for the League? Yeah, probably. That may be the way of the world, and so it goes. But simply because that is how it is doesn’t mean fans and media have to simply accept it. And, in fact, to argue that we, as spectators to this little piece of business theater, need to just pragmatically make our peace with whatever bullshit goes down is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of spectators in hockey.

We- we who watch, whether professionally or privately- are the stakeholders in hockey who do not have to be motivated by bottom lines and the routines of business negotiations.  Since we don’t get paid, or get paid the same regardless of who wins, we are in the privileged position of being able to value other things.  Things like ethics, and feelings, and history, and, oh, I don’t know, having hockey.  Our role in this is to be the people who have ideals and try, in whatever small way we can, to push the game towards them.  If we were the sort to blithely accept that hockey is a business, we wouldn’t be spending hundreds of dollars to scream drunk from the rafter seats.  We’re here to care, no matter how impractical that caring may be.  It’s what we do.  It’s who we are.  And we should never, ever apologize for it.  Even when we bring that caring, and all those other things we care about, to bear on the business side of the game.

The reasons that people support the players this time around are many and varied, but they’re not bad. Some people support the players because of a philosophical belief that players have a more legitimate claim to that extra 14% of revenues than the owners do. That may not be the way the world works, but it is certainly a valid ethical position to hold with a very reasonable argument behind it. Some support the players because they have concerns about the NHL business model and its policies surrounding expansion and revenue sharing, and believe that the players’ proposal does more to address the financial concerns they have about the future of the League. They may not get what they want, but there are very practical, pragmatic reasons for wanting it. And probably many, many fans support the players because the players have not threatened to end hockey, while the owners have. That, my friends, is not ‘falling for PR’, that’s rational self-interest. That’s taking the side who, as far as things have gone to date, seems to want what you want. None of these positions may be reflected in the ultimate outcome. They’re all still valid positions, well worth the advocating.

Public opinion, in all matters of business or politics, is never a hard force. It can seldom compel anything from people who are profoundly isolated from the public by money and power. Those who say that fans have no influence in the outcome of the CBA talks are right: we cannot effect the changes we want directly. But nevertheless, it is essential that we continue to advocate for the principles we believe in, the ethics we share, and our interests in hockey. It may be a long time before we see those principles, ethics, and interests reflected in the game. It may never happen. But if we fatalistically resign ourselves to the idea that business is business and nothing will ever change, it will definitely never happen.

Comments (14)

  1. This article sums up the absolute worst thing about this entire mess. I can take or leave them all, Bettman, Fehr, Obama, Romney, whatever. But when they take you, to my mind the best hockey prose artist BY FAR and compel you to posit the bullshit above, well, that’s just too fucking much.

    “Get used to disappointment.” – The Dread Pirate Roberts

    • So sad that I never developed the capacity for independent thought.

      Did you have an actual point to make or…?

      • <> I don’t know what you mean by that.

        When you are writing about hockey, there is none better. Since I tracked down Justin after he left PuckDaddy and stumbled across your musings, you have become my favorite hockey writer. Your posts are invariably insightful, compelling and though-provoking, but unique amoungst your peers, they are BEAUTIFULLY written. Stick-tap to your English teachers and whoever, if anyone, mentored your writings. So I admit, I’ve held you to an impossible standard, but you set the bar.

        That all being said, when I read this post, the point seemingly being that it is okay to have a rooting interest in the men in business suits (there might be a woman in a business suit in there, but who really cares) dominating the hockey headlines, I cringed.

        The point, I guess, is that this isn’t even a business-of-hockey fight. Bettman is saying “we want what the NFL and NBA owners got.” and the players responded “oh yeah. well we’ll get the MLB players guy to oppose you.” And this isn’t even all that insightful.

        I love the shoot-out. I think they should have one every game, and award a point for it, just like they do to break ties. It’ll keep fans in their seats for an entire 7-1 drubbing (to say nothing of keeping the concessions busy).

        A one-year $7 million contract for Semin is the perfect answer.

        “You’re neither. You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.” Colonel Kurtz, Apocolypse Now.

  2. Although I laughed when reading your comment, I have to agree 100%. Very well said indeed.

  3. I think there is one other aspect to those siding with the nhlpa this time. Regardless of which side you were on last time, I think we can all agree that the owners got the system they wanted. And now they are telling us they have to lock out again because it’s not working. Hard to stomach.

    • This is a big issue for me: if their own plan didn’t solve the problem, and this one doesn’t institute any structural changes besides putting a larger fraction of revenues into owner hands (a move that, as far as I can tell, will benefit the already successful franchises far more than the struggling ones), what’s to stop the cycle of resorting-to-a-lockout-to-get-more from happening every CBA negotiation? At some point, there’s gotta be some push from somewhere to press the NHL itself to reconsider it’s policies re: franchise location and revenue sharing. Absent any sign of conflict among the owners, the PA is really the only entity that’s even close to being able to push these issues, even though their leverage is paltry.

  4. Although an emotional article can evoke emotional response, when dealing with big business, their job is to care about the money. I laugh heartily when the “average” hockey fan wants Gary Bettman fired.

    He is more likely to get employee of the millennium than fired. He is doing a spectacular job, but our friends on the couch feel he should shoulder the blame for growing the game’s revenues from $400 Million to $3.3 Billion under his tenure.

    People suggest that the system that the owners wanted gets them their just desserts. Just because it appears good on paper, doesn’t mean it’s a good system. How many people have negotiated large business deals that on the surface look good, but have flaws.

    Either way, I am still on the owners side, support Bettman. I am just one of the few with the testicles to say it. If you want me to write the counterpoint to your article, I would be happy to. :)

    • You’re missing the ppint. This system was exactly what the owners wanted. It failed them, they were outsmarted by sports agents. What’s to say whatever system is put in place now won’t have the same result in 8 years? No one disputes that Bettman has significantly grown revenues.

      Hockey is not like the other major sports. The bulk of viewers and fans will return in droves because it is our passion. Name me another sport that could support two full season work stoppages (and if it were not for the NBC contract, we would lose this season entirely)? You can’t. The fans suffer and the low-level industry-related employees suffer.

      The Wild can’t dish out $200M in contracts in one summer and then say they’re worried about rising costs. Look in the fucking mirror.

    • Hey, if you actually have a reason for supporting the owners, great. Good on you. My quarrel isn’t really with people who support the other side, it’s with people who argue that it there is only one legitimate way to think/feel about the problems, or that there is something inherently wrong with fans taking a side at all. I suspect, fundamentally, that our different allegiances stem from underlying philosophical differences: I get that the owners are out to make money, I just don’t personally support their right to make as much money as possible. You, by the sound of your post, do, which means we probably need to have an argument about capitalism, cartels, and what sports ownership should look like in North America.

      As to the growth in NHL revenues under Bettman’s tenure, it’d be extremely interesting to see the actual breakdowns of where the money came from. The thing that is so troubling to so many of us is how the League could be this much more profitable while still having so many franchises that are struggling to keep afloat, and whether there is ever going to be any sensible plan for addressing the persistent discrepancy between the rich and the poor teams. The owners’ proposal of taking a larger percentage of the revenue overall isn’t designed to address that, certainly not over the long-term, but obviously it’s a major concern for many fans, both those of small market teams that struggle and those of the big market teams who support them through revenue sharing.

    • See for me – I was on the owner’s side in the past. I believe the owners should be allowed to make as much as they can and I totally believed in the salary cap. But the owners aren’t trying to change the system that THEY built – they are just trying to force the players into a pay cut – one that will just be evaporated over time and this issue will just crop up again. The owners need to change the system and to me are basically fighting among themselves and the players are being used as leverage.

  5. No matter what level of revenue sharing is instituted, there will undoubtedly be ways to circumvent that, too. The large market teams do not see, or do not wish to see, the need for reaching into different markets and across different demographics.

    Personally, I hope that, if there is a stoppage, we make the owners and players pay for it. If they lockout, maybe I’ll spend more time in the rink watching juniors or something. Take up a new hobby. Do anything to not support these people who are corrupting the highest level of my favorite sport.

  6. Well, right now there may only be two parties at the bargaining table, but they’re not the only ones with an economic interest in this dispute.

    We, for instance, are the paying customer – paying for tickets, for eyeballs, for food and booze and gear. And most customers want to be able to at least obtain the product they’ve paid for. People bitch – and usually at the workers – when their “essential service” goes down due to a labour clash. Well, I blame the owners for this outage – again – and basically, would like to fire these buffoons into the sun.

    Another economic interest which is in play, is, of course, we – as taxpayers. As the guys who foot the bill for the corporate tax breaks that enable these tools-in-suits to wander into the game about 3:30 into the 2nd period. And we also happen to be the guys and gals who build the arenas, and provide every kind of tax break and hidden revenue source imaginable. And to whom do those breaks flow? Ahhh yes, to the owners, of course. They get the cheap concrete edifice, they get the cheap parking, they get the free lotto terminals, etc etc.

    So, bottomline of economic interests #3 and #4? The owners took our money, took our tax breaks, took away hockey once to bust the players and make a system they liked, and now?? Even AFTER a massive expansion in revenues (hint: money flowing from us) – they’re taking away the game again.

    It’s a bit like feeling sorry for Jabba the Hutt.

    So please, could some hard-done-by and ressentiment-filled accountant-commentator find it in their heart to drop by and tell me why I should support the Jabba’s again? Why it’s in my economic self-interest to see the game shut down? And while you’re at it, I’ll be elsewhere.

  7. Most of the pundits and talking heads are missing a very important distinction. They keep talking about record “profits” for the league. What the league has actually had is record REVENUE. Revenue does not equate to profits. The league is not profitable – it posted a $14 million loss for 2011. This is probably a paltry loss when you consider the enormous numbers involved – i.e. Gary Bettman and Bill Daley combined probably got paid $14 million last year, so some very minor (relatively speaking) cost cutting could get the league to a break even or profitable position. Each franchise has its own taxes to file, but since most, if not all, of them are privately owned, you and I will never know the exact extent of their “profits” or “losses”.

    I’ve also heard this – “What business distributes it’s profits to it’s employee’s?” – As though the players are getting 57% of the “profits”. NO, NO, NO! The players want 57% of the revenue, which leaves the owner’s 43% of the revenue to pay for arena maintenance, lease costs, employee’s that keep the team offices and hockey operations running, travel costs for the team, coaches, trainers, team doctors, and on and on and on.

    I’m on neither side in this mess. There’s plenty of blame to go around. The owner’s have more leverage than the players. Bottom line. If the players insist on not compromising with the league, then the lock out will be lengthy. If they are really determined to have it their way, they will probably have to prepare for a multi-season lock out in order to bring sufficient economic pressure on the owners to get them to capitulate. If the players are not ready to endure that, they will end up buckling in the end and we will have lost another season or more of hockey in order to get to a compromise that reasonable people could reach right now. Unless the owner’s sincerely perceive that the value of their franchises will be significantly damaged (in the long term) by a work stoppage, they will be able to hold out. It’s not the money they can make while they operate a team that matters most to them. It is the value of the franchise when they are ready to sell it. If they truly believe they can improve the value of their franchises to an extent that exceeds the losses they will endure during a work stoppage, you bet they will hold on to that position.

    As an emotional hockey fan, I find myself yelling at the radio when I hear the talk about profits, so it’s nice to have an opportunity to get that off my chest!

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