Lock Out or Check Out?

This little article is an enlargement on my response to the news on Brian Burke’s suggestions for settling the difference that have led to the lock-out.

Though I may not understand all of what Mr. Burke is proposing, one thing that I do understand is that both sides are in the wrong.

The PLAYERS, on one hand, have salaries that are ridiculously high (just like they are in most other ‘pop’ sports – baseball, basketball, etc.) and they need to be recognize that these salary levels need to be made more reasonable. I know that one of the reasons, if not the main one that there appears to be more support for the owners in this dispute is that the salaries are seen to be way out of proportion to the societal value of the ‘product’. I suppose that it’s simply a matter of market value coming into play but, nevertheless, when teachers, doctors, engineers and, for that matter, essential ‘blue collar’ worker/contributors see themselves make a fraction of the income the ‘average’ player in the NHL gets, it takes away from the credibility of the whole system.

Yet, the OWNERS are just as, if not more, responsible for this present state of affairs than are the players. If they had been more fiscally responsible and ‘long-term’ responsible, this situation would not be upon us. But, in their shortsightedness, they vigorously participated in the escalating bidding wars in order to get the ‘stars’ that would hopefully bring them over the top in the matter of success and to present a more attractive product to their markets. Though the idea has merit in itself, it also has horrendous ‘costs’, especially in terms of buying away the future for present glory and creating another reason for the sport to be seen as a less credible product. To make things worse, this practice has shown itself to be, for the most part, a failure (ie: Rangers, St. Louis, Toronto, Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington, etc.). The owners are the ones who have mainly helped to create this high salary base in a sport where it has never been altogether that very popular below the Canada/US border (except in areas where it is well entrenched or is a natural part of the population’s psyche – northern US?)

Also, though only in a related vein, the perceived need by the league (owners) to expand, expand and expand into new franchises has brought in huge weaknesses in the league’s financial foundation and, for those who understand the game, a serious dilution in talent with a resulting mediocrity of product. More loss of credibility for the sport. (By the way, there’s a bit of the miracle of hindsight here.)

So, as to my opinion, simplistic as it very well is, all I can propose is that:

- The PLAYERS accept that there be some sort of salary cap (most of us in the average working world live with that).

- The OWNERS must develop some sort of effective self-policing system which will prevent some of them (St. Louis Blues and New Jersey Devils, most recently) from initiating further rounds of self-destructive bidding wars. (The problem with this is that is may smell like collusion which may cause problems.)

In any case, I believe that the longer this lock-out/strike remains in place, the likelier it will be that small market US teams will be forced to fold.

I don’t think, in the long run, that Canadian teams will massively lose out (maybe Ottawa) but, look for teams where hockey is not a natural or is too new (Anaheim, San Jose, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Florida, Nashville, Columbus) to suffer severe blows that could very likely lead to bankruptcy and closure.

Can Mr. Bettman really make these teams ‘hold the fort’ while they lose massive amounts of money because of a lost fan base? I doubt it. We used to have the Colorado Rockies, the Cleveland Barons, the Atlanta Flames, etc. It wasn’t seen as a BAD thing when they folded, simply a recognition of something that was tried but didn’t work.

In closing, as to the likely closure of one or more teams, as a result of this lock-out, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself.