We have officially passed the halfway mark of August, and for hockey fans, that means we are getting closer to September and the opening of training camp.
Unfortunately, there's a black cloud hanging over the NHL in the form of a potential lockout. The current CBA between the NHL and players will expire in just under a month, and Gary Bettman is on record as saying that the owners will likely close the doors and begin a work stoppage if an agreement is not reached before September 15.
For fans of a sport that has gone through 3 work stoppages in the last 20 years, this wasn't news we wanted to hear. The last time the NHL and NHLPA negotiated a CBA, we lost an entire season of hockey. We as fans sit back, watching them go at it again with the same fear and anxiety we got when we saw our parents argue over where to go to dinner.
When the NHL released details of their initial offer to the players, it's safe to say that many fans immediately felt unlikely sympathy for a bunch of millionaire athletes who were being pushed around by billionaire owners. Reductions in the players' share of hockey-related revenue along with changes to free agency and contract lengths signified that the owners, despite the steady growth of league revenue since the last lockout, wanted to institute changes to what appeared to be a system that needed tweaks, not an overhaul.
The players' response has been met with praise for it's out-of-the-box thinking and clear intent to compromise. Rather than request an increase in their piece of the ever-growing pie, the players offered to take second helpings of vegetables instead, at least for the short term.
As a Wing fan, there are several worries about a potential lockout. First and foremost, the NHL's marquee event, the Winter Classic, is finally being held in Michigan, but it was announced this week that the NHL built a clause into their agreement with Michigan Stadium that they could cancel the game at any point up to and including on January 1st. For the thousands of fans who have been able to get tickets and even more who were planning own being in the area, this would be a devastating blow, especially because it will have been a very long time since the Penguins were featured and the league would not have a Western team in for at least 3 more years.
More importantly, the Wings' core isn't exactly young, and losing a year of the brilliance of Pavel Datsyuk, leadership of Henrik Zetterberg and baffling inconsistency of Jonathan Ericsson would be such a waste. Can you imagine if we were deprived of an entire season of Todd Bertuzzi's shootout moves? I shudder to think of what else we would miss.
Naturally, one has to wonder what Mike Ilitch thinks of all this. There have been no quotes from either him or others in his ownership circle regarding their opinion on either the initial proposal by the NHL or the players' response. As an owner who has consistently spent a lot of money both pre- and post-lockout, it's clear that the concept of increasing player salaries hasn't been his biggest concern. In fact, he's gone on record as saying that he hates the salary cap, instead preferring to pay what he can to land the biggest stars.
So what does he think of the owners wanting to further reduce both what is defined as hockey-related revenue and the players' share of it? Is he on board? Is he sitting in the room with the other owners agreeing with what they want? Is he in favor of reduced revenue sharing among the NHL teams, instead preferring to take more money away from the players and into the pockets of his fellow billionaires?
It's hard to say. Personally, I choose to believe that he sits quietly when discussions get heated, pulling a piece of Crazy Bread out of his briefcase and mumbling "cuppy cuppy cuppy" between bites. When someone turns to him and asks him his opinion on whether they should try and find ways to extract more money away from the players, I hope he looks down at his 4 Stanley Cup rings and says "I just want to win, whatever the cost".
As an owner of the one of the biggest and most lucrative teams in the league, I imagine that the other big-market clubs try to persuade him to side with them in what they want. Things like increased revenue sharing, which is going to be one of the most contentious points of the negotiations, have the potential to turn owner against owner, leading to delays while the NHL figures out what they want.
Ilitch doesn't strike me as a man easily swayed by other opinions. He seems like a man who knows what he wants and is not afraid to either voice that or just go get it.
Since taking over the team in 1982, Ilitch has taken the Wings from being a laughingstock to a perennial contender. He's done this while enduring several different commissioners, NHLPA leaders and work stoppages. He remains one of the best owners in not only hockey but all of a sports, the rare combination of an owner who truly and honestly just wants to win championships and will do anything to make that happen. Here's hoping that a voice like his rises above the rest so that all of us, owners, players and fans, can make sure that we will enjoy this sport that we love so much.