The National Hockey League’s problems are summed up in one sorry fact: More people watched coverage of the NHL’s recent labor dispute than ever watched NHL hockey. For millions of sports fans, there was greater suspense in whether or not the NHL would become the first North American sports league to shut down an entire season than there was in last year’s Stanley Cup finals. (I’ll bet 10 people know the outcome of the labor dispute for every one who remembers the winner of last year’s cup.)
Professional hockey in this country is often referred to, erroneously, as one of the four major sports. Exactly what this judgment is based on isn’t quite known. Hockey on television gets beat by just about everything that comes up against it; last winter’s NHL All-Star Game had fewer TV viewers than the opening games of the Arena Football League. But hockey fans would insist that if their sport isn’t prime-time, then they, at least, are major-league in loyalty, and on this point they are probably right. After the lockout of 1994-95, a work stoppage that lasted for more than 100 days, attendance for the shortened season actually increased by more than 1,000 fans per game. In contrast, Major League Baseball, 10 years after its most famous work stoppage, still hasn’t equaled 1994’s per-game attendance.
That hockey also has a big-league players’ union is now impossible to deny. The NHL Players’ Association’s gutsy blue-collar membership shame their easily cowed, spoiled-brat counterparts in the National Football League and the National Basketball Association. Man for man, they may even be tougher than the most successful union in sports, the Major League Baseball Players Association. It’s impossible, for instance, to imagine any hockey player saying what Jose Canseco does in his new book, Juiced: “That strike  never should have happened, and it never would have happened if the owners had approached things intelligently. All they needed to do was find half a dozen influential players without guaranteed contracts who were willing to distance themselves from the stance of the Players Association. Those players each could have brought other players along to their way of thinking. . . . If the owners had approached me in the right way, I could have done it for them myself.” Here’s a man who earned millions because his union fought for and protected his right to free agency gleefully proclaiming that he’d have scabbed for the owners if given the chance. A hockey player who said such a thing would find himself staring upward from underneath the ice.
Which is one reason why the National Hockey League owners will be short at least one weapon when they attempt to strong-arm the players into accepting a new deal for the 2005-06 season. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who is to sports commissioners what Dr. Kevorkian is to physicians—has not ruled out the possibility of declaring a labor impasse and hiring what so many in the media are distressingly referring to as “replacement players.” If the owners tried this, the union would undoubtedly file a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board in the United States. (Legally, a decision would have no effect on the six Canadian teams, but the league as it’s currently structured is far more dependent on the revenue of its 24 American teams.) Of course, if the owners did put players out on the ice in Montreal Canadiens or New York Rangers uniforms, they would not be “replacements”—the current players are still under contract to those NHL teams, and so the impostors would not be “replacing” anybody. What they would be is what, thank God, a few ESPN reporters with some labor smarts are already calling the so-called replacements: scabs.
That’s what a scab is: someone the ownership hires to undermine the bargaining position of labor. In 1987, the NFL owners got away with using scabs because the TV networks, who had sold a lot of advertising for NFL football, shamefully allowed them to do it, televising the games as if they were real football. That the NHL has so little national television clout in this case works for the players; if the owners put scabs on ice, they face the possibility of a sharp decline in attendance from their only real source of revenue, hockey-wise fans. Most pro-football fans are casual and wouldn’t recognize most players with their helmets off anyway. But hockey fans know their guys from the way they scratch their noses in the penalty box, and it’s doubtful that any of them will accept scabs.
So where does that leave the future of NHL hockey? If we can believe NHLPA head Bob Goodenow, back where it should be—namely, where it was when negotiations for a new basic agreement started. The players finally gave in on the issue of the salary cap. Some cynics are saying that they caved, which goes to prove that professional athletes can’t ever really win in these disputes. If you compromise, some people are simply going to say that you caved. In any event, Bettman and NHL management tipped their hand when they refused to accept the players’ proposal of a $49 million per team salary cap. Bettman said the owners wanted $42.5 million. The owners didn’t want to compromise; they wanted to break the union. Goodenow’s response was perfect: “The proposal was made on Monday, is pulled off the table, and it was made for a reason on Monday under certain circumstances. I can tell you right now I don’t know if those certain circumstances would arise again in the future.” I like this guy. The next union I join, I hope he’s the head of it.
The lamest reason offered by the owners for a salary cap was the issue of competitive balance. For nearly two years now, well before the negotiations opened, NHL officials were saying that they didn’t want their sport to become like baseball, where one rich team like the Yankees can dominate everything. That’s the flash-card response used by ownership in all sports these days: Blame the Yankees. But the Yankees haven’t won a championship in four years, and in the NFL, which does have a salary cap, the New England Patriots have won three Super Bowls in the last four seasons. There’s no evidence that salary caps prevent one or two teams from dominating their leagues, but there’s plenty of evidence that salary caps hold salaries down, which is why they’re called “caps.”
The NHL, like all sports leagues, does not need a salary cap—it needs executives who know how to manage their budgets. The hockey lockout seemed to be about issues more complex than those in other sports. It was not. At base, it was about the inability of the hockey owners to keep their own spending in line and their demand that the players’ union do the managing for them by agreeing to limit their spending. (The owners want a cap on the players’ salaries, but not a cap on their own ticket prices, which average out at an eye-popping $43.60.) The NHLPA correctly told the owners that it is not the association’s place to manage the teams’ budgets or make deals that lower its members’ salaries.
I’m not a hockey fan, but like many people I know, I’m now a fan of the hockey players’ union.
Allen Barra’s latest book is Big Play: Barra on Football (Brasseys Inc.).