If I told you the NHL lockout reminds me of maple forests, would you think I was insane? Because I think I might be.

Despite learning about it every year of my elementary school life, I don’t think much about ecology.  Or I didn’t, anyway, until the lockout. It’s one of those things that urbanites- even waste-recycling, local-eating, carbon-footprint-reducing environmentalist urbanites- tend to understand in dualistic, romantic terms: the pristine harmony of untouched wilderness vs. the corrupted, polluted haunts of man. A few years in the city and it’s easy to fall into the platitudes. Balance of nature, circle of life, etc etc. I forget the details of how ecosystems actually work.

In the fall, when the lockout was just beginning and the world was still green and there was still hope the hearts of hockey fans, I took a trip north, to spend some time among plants. The northern forests are the ‘nature’ of my childhood, the familiar wilderness. The Canadian version is a little rockier, a little lakier, but it has a homey kind of beauty. Spare, thin trees reaching to great irrational heights, spindly leafy ground plants, chipmunks and deer, everything a pale green light splotched with shadows. I’d never been to that forest before, yet it felt like I’d been there a thousand times, like I’d been going there every year since I was four years old. I am that much of a city girl, that it seems to me as though they are always the same trees.

They’re not. What looks to me like pure, beautiful, balanced nature, preserved in a pristine harmony by the zealous care of the Parks Service is no such thing. It’s full of havoc and death. What we think of as the balance of nature is no happy equilibrium. It’s a constant succession of traumas, of disease, murder, starvation, suffering. The state of nature is a perpetual imbalance. Although it always pulls back in the direction of the happy medium, that point of perfect harmony is seldom reached and never holds for long. Something is always overgrowing. Something is always dying out.

Animal populations are, it seems, in constant flux against each other, millions of tiny lives extinguished daily in the digestive juices of something just a little bit faster, a little bit stronger. Among the flora, though, it works differently. Plants compete with each other, yes, for water, sunlight, and soil, but unlike the animal kingdom, where the scarcity of food and the difficulty of hunting act as a check on the dominance of apex predators, among plants it is entirely possible for a single species to dominate and extinguish all rivals. In this forest, those plants are the maples and beeches. As children, these trees flourish in the shade; as adults, they spread wide canopies that absorb all the sun. They grown up under the shelter of earlier species only to crowd them out, their stands becoming long homogeneous tracts of themselves, mile after mile.

They call it climax forest, when the few species of tree at the top of the plant succession hierarchy take over an area entirely.  This climax forest, the one I was in, the one in the picture at the top of the post, is beech-maple forest, meaning virtually all the trees are of those two varieties.  Climax forest is not necessarily “the best” kind of forest.  It may have some of the oldest, grandest trees, but it’s a poor habitat for a great many other species. It’s inhospitable to shrubs and bushes and many kinds of flower, hostile to fast-growing, light-hungry trees.  Many kinds of birds, and especially the large mammals of which we are so fond, flourish in newer, younger growths of pines and birches, not among the venerable old groves.

But of course we always want to preserve climax forest, thinking that because it’s old it is somehow traditional, the way it has always been. Anxious of our own imbalanced impact on the world, humans are desperate preservers. We love nothing more than to keep something exactly the same forever. Think of all the ancient buildings we’d rather see deprived of all purpose and meaningful function, cordoned off behind velvet ropes or dismembered into glass cases, anything but worn down. For years we tried to preserve the forests by fighting all destruction with the full force of technology: pesticides and herbicides to kill what there was too much of, fertilizers and targeted plantings to make more of what there was too little of, helicopters full of water to stop any fire. The obsession with preservation of things exactly as they are blinded everyone to the fact that all our saving and protecting was, in fact, no more than another kind of human distortion of the natural world.  We were preserving forests that needed to die.

I wonder a lot lately why we are so desperate to preserve the NHL.

It is the climax forest of hockey leagues, composed of such solid trunks as have been able to withstand the tests of time. It has weathered floods and droughts, fat years and lean years, it has put a half dozen rivals in their graves. Look, I love the NHL. NHL hockey is great. It’s the best hockey in the world, or the closest extant approximation of the best hockey in the world. It has venerable old teams with deep histories and sexy young stars with petal-soft hands. It has enormous comfy arenas and high-definition television broadcasts. As a person who loves hockey and lives in North America, there is no denying that they have a phenomenally attractive product. If it’s on, I’m going to watch it, and if you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance that you will too. We like it. There’s no shame in that, nor harm neither.

But somewhere along the line, our enjoyment of the NHL product has curdled into something a little bit pathological. Both the lockout and the increasingly crazed sorrow over the lockout are symptoms of a larger problem: the hockey ecosystem in North America is fucked up. It’s all out of whack. Like a stand of sugar maples, the NHL has gotten so big, so strong, and so dominant that it’s become destructive. It’s sucked up such a huge percentage of hockey fan devotion that it’s actually become harmful to the overall ecology of the sport. It’s not good for hockey for the NHL to be so powerful, and it’s not good for hockey fans either. Our experience of and relationship to the game gets richer as we participate in more levels and varieties of the sport, and the dominance of the NHL has atrophied all other levels of the sport. It has killed off any peers that might compete for fan or player loyalty. It has transformed its affiliated minor leagues into little more than storage sheds for grinders. It has usurped the pleasure people used to take in their local teams- I mean the really local teams, the juniors and the amateurs- and replaced it with abject devotion to a roster of millionaires dozens if not hundreds of miles away. When the NHL is on, most people don’t care about any other kind of hockey, which would be fine- if the NHL was always on. But when the NHL doesn’t play and can still nevertheless prevent the development of any other hockey that might fill its place, then we have a problem.

If there were no fires, no pestilences, no wind storms, then half the eastern continent would be covered in beech and maple. We might never have seen an aspen or a spruce, and countless species would be long extinct that cannot grow in maple shade. It would be a prettier world- in fall, at least- but a poorer one. There are a thousand things that cannot grow unless, sooner or later, the maples come down. All those catastrophes things that humans used to spend so much time trying to save the forests from- those are the natural controls on climax vegetation, the things that keep those elite plants from crowding out the rest. Eventually, the grand old trees have to burn.

They don’t go down easy, of course. A strong, healthy climax forest can weather a lot of storms, just as the NHL has survived everything for nearly a century. But eventually, when the time is right, things come together- a parasite, a drought, a bolt of lightning- and the conflagration comes.

Does anyone think, now, on day 95 of the third lockout, that the NHL is a strong, healthy league? It should be. At the end of 2012, professional hockey in North America was as profitable as it had ever been. But somehow, despite the record profits, despite the league being larger, more dominant, and more wealthy than ever before, it still made more sense to the powers-that-be to kill the season rather than play it. That alone is the proof. Something is sick in this League. Something is disordered.

Maybe it’s the finances. Maybe it’s the number of mismanaged or misplaced teams that either can’t make a competitive product or can’t sell it.  Or maybe it’s the hearts of men. Maybe the NHL has become too much a business and too little a hockey league, dominated by dudes who are in it for profit and not pleasure. As Gladwell famously said, owning a sports team should be something that one does for the psychic benefits rather than the financial ones, but clearly NHL owners don’t feel that way.  I don’t know if we created the wrong franchises or just sold those franchises to the wrong guys.

But whatever the cause, the NHL is cannibalizing itself. For nearly eighty years, we had a climax hockey league in North America which thought it was in its best interest, every year, to play hockey. We had a League that wanted to put on the game. Now we don’t. At some point, the ostensible reasons don’t even matter anymore, because the consequences are so painfully obvious. We’ve transcended the point of negotiation and reached the moment of tautology: this system is fucked because it’s fucked. Because the National Hockey League is not making hockey anymore. This forest is dying.

Decertification would be a fire. Not, mind you, some kind of oh-dear-my-flambe-got-a-bit-out-of-hand fire, but a ANGEL-WITH-A-BIG-FUCKING-FLAMING-SWORD-RAINING-DOWN-CHAOS-AND-DEATH fire. Contracts could be voided, the entry draft abrogated, revenue sharing might collapse. Careers would end, teams would fail, and all those rules and regulations you spent so much time learning- salary cap, salary floor, term limits, that crazy-ass cap-hit averaging thing that never made any fucking sense anyway- would vanish. Up could become down, red could become blue, Bill Daly might turn into a rutabaga for all I know. It will be sheer bloody anarchy. The labor market in hockey would be uncontrolled in a way it hasn’t been since the 1920s. It would completely destabilize the NHL, and quite possibly destroy it in all but name.

I don’t think it will actually happen. This is hockey; these are hockey men. They’re fundamentally conservative guys, protective of their position, jealous of whatever marginal gains they’ve made. Look at them next time you see them standing up there in front of you; look into the twinkling eyes of Gary Bettman and the cold, dead eyes of Sidney Crosby and ask yourself: are either of these guys the Joker? Are these the type of men who want to watch the world burn? Fuck no. These are guys who want to make money. They’ll pull back and guard what they have before going to the mat over something they want. This time.

But as much as they want to protect what they have, they’re not doing much to build for the future. There’s nothing going on here that is going to make a stronger League. There has been, as far as I can tell, no deep discussion in these CBA negotiations about how to solve the core problems that lead to these lockouts, the financial imbalances that make it worthwhile for some owners to destroy their own product. We’re not having a serious conversation about revenue sharing or a luxury tax or the prospect of relocation for franchises that cannot find stable ownership where they are. Because the Players’ Association exists, the owners have the option of offloading their problems- and make no mistake, the problems of the NHL are overwhelmingly the owners’ problems; there is no 50/50 responsibility here- onto the players. So long as they can take from the PA, they don’t have to figure out how to control their own spending, how to regulate their own contract terms, or how to support franchises they sold for the expansion fees and now can’t keep afloat. Nothing that has happened in the past four months has made the NHL a healthier institution. I’m not sure at this point that anything can.

I hate to say it… Wait, understand, I really hate to say it. Because I loved the NHL as it was and would like nothing more than to see it continue on it’s merry way, much the same this year as it was the year before. Because I still worry about the fate of fourth liners and role-players in a system with no mandated contract minimums. Because I have no faith in the utopia to come. There are those who think that, if the NHL burns, a better, brighter League will grow up in its place, a lovely Bundesliga of Manitoba or something like- which is akin to believing that if you burn down a stand of sugar maples, you could use the land for growing cacti. This soil only grows certain kinds of things, and absent a huge climactic shift in the world of North American sport, what this soil grows is NBAs and NFLs and MLBs. I don’t think that, when the NHL goes down, we get a Premier League in its place. I think when the NHL goes down the conflagration lasts for years, and when it’s all over we end up with something very similar to what we had before.

But this thing is dying anyway. The only question is how many more spasms it has left in it. We’ve seen the playbook now, this lockout unfolding before us with the measured rhythms and cued hysteria of grand opera. We’re being taken in a long con whose final moves will be played out two lockouts down the road, when ever more extreme measures have led again and again to the same predictable result. The only trick they have, either side, is to push this thing as close to the brink as possible and see who pulls back first. Eventually, one or two lockouts down the road, it’s going over the edge.

Eventually, it’s going to burn.

Might as well be now.

I hate to say it, but…

Fuck it, decertify and see what happens.

Comments (13)

  1. This is the first of your (non-goalie related) posts that I’ve been enthralled with, and it really captures the spirit of the lockout.
    I do have one question, though: what about the other three major sports leagues in North America? The NBA, NFL and MLB are the pinnacle of their sports, as the NHL is the pinnacle of hockey. People dream of playing in those leagues, unlike in soccer, where there are three or four “pinnacle” leagues.
    You said that it was bad for hockey to have one dominant league. Are you implying that the NBA, MLB and NFL are as bad for their respective sports as the NHL is to hockey?

    • I would say there is sufficient interest and quality in college basketball and football to sustain a fan through generally rough times. Baseball as well, with it’s enormous network of A, AA and AAA teams, can fill the niche should the major leagues cease to operate. Hockey at any level sub-NHL is extraordinarily niche and overwhelmingly local.


  3. Burn, Baby, Burn.

    We’re going to need some invasive plants though. Ready, willing and able to move in on the burned territory. Not sure we have those. I hope we get to see.

  4. “So long as they can take from the PA, they don’t have to figure out how to control their own spending, how to regulate their own contract terms”

    Nonsense. That’s EXACTLY what the current argument is about. Limiting term and back-diving contracts, in order to avoid the unhealthy long term, cap-avoiding deals. Are the GM’s responsible for this? Of course. The same way that a player that embellishes a hit, or turns to the boards is responsible for obviating the rules. They do it to win. As they should. The GM’s will take every advantage of the CBA, as they should. The league’s job is to plug the loopholes, which they are trying to over the NHLPA’s objections.

    “or how to support franchises they sold for the expansion fees and now can’t keep afloat. ”
    Again, nonsense. They fixed Atlanta. Yes Phoenix is an issue, but it looks like that ordeal is coming to an end.

    “Nothing that has happened in the past four months has made the NHL a healthier institution.” Reducing player costs will make it more healthy. A good number of teams lose money on hockey operations (the only operations that should count), despite growing revenues. That is a simple problem to diagnose – costs are too high. Even teams that “play by the rules”, are successful on the ice, and sell out every game are losing money. Player salaries have gone up at an amazing rate in the last 7 years – way, way faster than the general populations (whose have stayed stagnant). They need to come down.

    Is hockey at the Junior level less popular? I’d love to see some statistics backing that up, and not just an assertion. Certainly down in the States it’s not getting less popular amongst the youth, with as many American kids play hockey now as Canadian ones.

    The forest thing is a lovely analogy. Too bad it’s incorrect.

    • “Hockey at a Junior level” is irrelevant to the conversation – If one had to gauge Hockey (in general) on its’ overall level of “popularity”, one can be sure that the aggregate of everyone watching non-NHL games in North America would most likely outstrip the NHL’s attendance. There are just that many more leagues, teams and games. But. It wouldn’t surpass the NHL’s gate-receipts.

      It’s about the NHL’s financial sustainability – The Benjamins (that are required to draw the top talent on the planet.)

      The fact that the NHL is the premier Hockey league (on earth) and it has economically “painted itself into a corner” and could (COULD, not “will”) face extinction, is the issue.

      Ms Etchingham’s allegorical portrayal is not that far-fetched – It may be viewed as being overly “organic” – But, economics and politics are often organic (and in an almost Newtonian fashion.)

      Action – reaction.

      This particular piece (parable?) might reflect what would most aptly might be considered a “bigger they are – harder they fall” anecdote – As in: “And it’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around. So have a good drown, as you go down all alone. Dragged down by the stone.”

      The missing part in the author’s equation — the absent character or variable — is “the buying-public”; We the fans.

      We are (ostensibly) the radiation and nutrients that sustain the “forest” – We still remain; untapped, steadfast. Though it’s beginning to seem that “the forest” has decided that water and minerals and sunlight are to be either dismissed or ignored as an afterthought, in its’ battle among “the trees”

      …And that is what may well result in a previously unforeseen collapse in said ecosystem.

      It deserves earnest consideration.

      • I’m a huge fan of Ellen’s work. But on this one she is off base.

        The assertion that a league that has grown revenues from 2+billion to 3+billion in 7 years is somehow facing extinction is silly. It is facing greed. Players that are too greedy. GM’s whose competitive greed is unchecked via a weak set of existing CBA rules.

        The game is as exciting now as it has been in 20+ years. It has national TV deals on both sides of the border. The pie is growing. Players are making almost $1m more on average than a year ago. Unfortunately, the expenses are growing as well, and that lands on the owner’s side of the pie, and some adjustments are needed, particularly for the smaller markets (as it turns out, they didn’t employ Kreskin when they designed the financial aspects of the last CBA).

        That’s all.

        • How are the players greedy? They are the straw that stirs the drink.

          After demanding (and getting) cost-certainty, the owners are now going back cap in hand – while ignoring the explosion is revenues – pretending that the model that they demanded is no longer good enough.

          I’d like to see a breakdown of what possible expenses could have skyrocketed enough to make $3.3Bn too little on which to survive.

    • Yes, they fixed Atlanta by killing it as a market. If you think that Phoenix is about to be solved then I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. By the NHL’s own admission (granted, it’s based on fuzzy accounting) there are more than two teams that are suffering financial duress. Granted, it’s not limited to non-traditional markets but it’s more prevalent.

      The owners allow their GMs the freedom to use loopholes to their advantage. They are offering up the ‘closing’ of loopholes as an excuse to do what Ellen is describing which is use any excuse to try to roll back the players’ share. Owners don’t need to close loopholes to control spending but they aren’t willing to control their GMs.

      Why do players’ salaries have to come down because the general population’s wages have been stagnant for 40 years? The league’s revenue has exploded compared to their costs which they now have certainty over. Why shouldn’t players get a large share of what they helped produce? The better argument is why have the economic gains of the last 40 years not been shared more equitably with workers not that the players should accept a shitty deal because everyone else has.

      And yes, junior hockey is less popular than the NHL. Suggesting otherwise is naive. Show me a junior league that generates $3.3Bn in revenues and then we’ll talk.

      • I’m not going to pretend to understand Phoenix. Atlanta proves that the league can move on situations though.

        If the GM’s didn’t use loopholes by choice, they would immediately be called for collusion. Nobody in Minnesota is complaining about the deals that were signed in the summer. And lot’s of people (as you know) think Burke, for example, is a moron for his “artificial” trade deadlines. The GM’s and owners are competing. They will use every tool at their disposal. The league’s job is to constrain them, and clearly they missed a bunch of things in the last CBA – time to clean it up.

        We are past the point in this negotiation where anyone is demanding that salaries come down in any real way. Even if the cap regressed to what it was a year or two ago, it’s not a big deal. This isn’t the last lockout. And if the league growth exceeds expectations they will still go up. After %33 growth though, it’s time to put the financial house in order.

        The cost increases in doing business (and there are increases – look at the jets they fly in, the facilities they have, the staffs they have… it’s a real thing), are all on the owners side. When people I respect like the Sharks ownership say they have had to kick in $60m in the last 3-4 years, I believe them. I don’t think those guys would lie about “cash calls”. That’s a franchise that sells out every game, has great local coverage, a rabid fan-base, and is competitive every year. That’s not a good thing.

        Maybe more revenue sharing is the solution, but I bet you’d get a different point of view on that from the share holders of MLSE.

        I never said that Junior hockey was more popular than NHL (at least I did not intend to if I did). My question was is it decreasing in popularity, which I read as the intent in the posting.

  5. Costs are too high. Teams are losing money.

    Fact: Lots of businesses lose money. Where is it written that these guys are Owed a profit on an investment that they chose and priced of their own free will?

    Where the losses are true, then owners can either spend closer to the cap floor or sell their franchises. The fact is, when the franchises do occasionally change hands they still seem to be worth $150M or more. If they really are money losers, shouldn’t the buyers take this into account and pay less, rather than pay Some Large Sum and then complain about the revenue stream on their investment? What they are doing to the union is all about changing the cost model After the fact of purchase/investment, thereby creating a windfall increase in team value. If you’re losing money – and you don’t like it – sell. If you’re sticking it out then the current level of “losing money’ obviously still fits within your pain threshold for owning a major-league sports franchise. I agree that the players have made out extremely well under the current CBA. But so what? It’s the entertainment industry – talent gets paid, whether that’s baseball or movies or television. The players have accepted taking the haircut to 50%, certainly now the responsibility/onus for finishing the deal has to belong the owners. It’s Their problem to fix.

    • I just don’t understand the attitude of “The franchises have value – owners should be happy to lose money.” For the good of hockey, as fans we should WANT teams to make money! On hockey. And attract the best talent. And put on the best show. And not struggle like the Islanders and the other league sad-sacks.

      People point to “other income” not counted as being problematic. Sorry. I don’t want my hockey team’s fortunes to depend on whether they managed to get Justin Bieber to play in the arena! Or managed to soak the local government for tax breaks. The incentives are all wrong. I want them to make money based on hockey. On success on the ice. That’s why the CBA is strictly based on hockey related revenue, and it should be. The league finances just don’t allow that success right now.

      Somehow it’s ok to so many people for average salaries to go up by more than %33
      over the last 7 years (compared to zero growth for the rest of the population), but for good teams in good markets to continue to lose money. It’s nuts.

      Unlike the last lockout, nobody is seriously proposing cutting player salaries at this point. All they are saying is that you’ve had huge growth in the last 7 years, let’s just stop that for a bit (still allowing for growth if the league does really well), and focus a bit on putting the financial house in order.

  6. I think it all reverts back to a singular (disdainful) truth – “Johnny Appleseed” Bettman sowed apple seeds where they ought not to have been sowed.

    Argue all we may about what is NOW, but what is “now” is a result of what choices were made in the past – What agenda was mounte, supported, and driven forward.

    I’d love to see every team make money; goddamed right — and ALL of this SHIT just go away — but, there’s no avoiding the obvious…There are teams (ownerships, to be sure) that were enticed into pursuing an expansion model that is OBVIOUSLY proving itself to be unviable. Plain and effin simple.

    Unless THIS (and “this”, specifically and unequivocally) is addressed and remedied, the NHL will descend into chaos.

    Folks talk about the entitlement that the players have displayed… (N-word, please.)

    We’re looking at a majority of owners that are shocked and angry (or at least feigning such) that their primo, number-one consigliere’s projected windfalls are being undercut by the unanticipated mechanisms that have bestowed a bounty upon the NHLPA.

    This was supposed to be a slam-dunk investment!

    If one invests, under the recommendations of a brokerage, and said investment heads south, does one blame the stocks recommended? Or, the broker who recommended them.

    THAT — to me — is the essence of this battle. And one can bet their chubby tushes that Bettman is bound and determined to deflect all blame for this (HIS!) abysmal advice, to the players’ side.

    And that’s precisely what’s happening.

    Is there a workable solution that suits everyone’s needs? Yes. But, it would involve the removal of Bettman, and the face and ego he’s seeking to salvage by denying the failures he’s presided-over.

    This was HIS plan. And, look where it’s gotten.

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