March Madness

Sports headlines in March are usually dominated by three things in Canada: the end of the NHL season, MLB’s Grapefruit League and the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament. This year there is no NHL season, the MLB focus has shifted from the field to the US Congressional hearings on steroids and March Madness isn’t only on the court this year.

Yes, the continuing negotiation between the NHL and NHLPA constitutes madness, plain and simple. The madness is in that this opera must continue to play out scene-by-scene even though every move and reaction is as orchestrated as a Donald Rumsfeld press conference. It is reported that the NHL wishes to make a deal in time to save the 2005 Entry Draft. It is obvious that a deal by June is very unlikely. Both of the parties are in this for the long haul, both certain the other will break first. The last 9 months of bargaining has just been a public relations exercise to shift support of the fans to one side or the other.

So why can’t we bypass all of this posturing, the playing out of every scene, so we can get to the end game where the NHL commits to its intent to use replacement players in some form and the NHLPA makes it commitment to continue to encourage players to play in Europe and other leagues or announces its intention to form its own league? I can understand the owner’s position, in that they have committed handing this year over to Gary Bettman to get the deal they want, but I cannot understand the Players Association desire not to foresee what is coming and bring the situation to a head. It is their members who are playing for fractions of their salary, not playing at all or who’s careers are coming to an end. The situation is not one that they can “win”, in that they maintain the status quo or win increased concessions above the previous contract. There will be player salary rollbacks, even with a NHLPA “victory” the damage done to the league will ensure it.

So where is the common sense, the logic? Unfortunately those are the first things out the window when labour lawyers get involved. The tried and true methods taught in MBA School are employed by both sides without deviation. The fact that the business and employee situations differ so greatly from normal businesses makes no difference. The owners’ product being so fan interest driven and the athletes’ salaries so out line with other lines of work is lost on the leadership on either side. So go through these offers and rejections we must, until the NHL decides it is time to show their cards, likely a hand which will call for an impasse and result in an implementation of a salary structure to which replacement players will be free to play. It doesn’t matter to them that no one will be in the stands or watching on TV (if it is even televised). What matters is that the cracks in the union will begin to show. The fourth line player, the players at the minimum salary will break and cross the line rather than not play for another year or play in a minor or lesser league. History tells us that when the trickle becomes a stream the union will have to negotiate less it be laid to waste. So the question is: What does the union have up its sleeve for when the NHL is successful in these steps? Do they continue to encourage players to take jobs in Europe, the minors and elsewhere? Do they announce their own player-owned league or some affiliation with the reborn WHA to get it off the ground? Both sides will play the most drastic options available to them for that is where they get their confidence that they will break the other side and “win” this dispute.

My fear is that the madness doesn’t end until next March, by which time two full seasons will have been cancelled. A greater fear is that with replacement players instituted and an NHLPA decision to fund its own start-up league or partner with the WHA will provide a death-knell for the NHL. For madness can only lead to the incomprehensible.

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OC Jottings

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  • November 4, 2007
    Vote Recount Gives DeAngelis All-Star SpotWhoops! Better late than never, but you have to wonder how the league can announce the All-Star teams without the numbers being double checked by at least two different people. To make the correction after three days of the media and fans questioning the West place kicker position makes the new voting process which includes a fan vote seem a little suspicious. #
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