The first week of September is usually an exciting time to be a hockey fan. The doldrums of summer are finally coming to an end, and news starts to pick up regarding prospect tournaments and training camp. People begin to make plans for attending pre-season games to get a glimpse of their favorite players for a few minutes while trying to judge whether Superstar Rookie or That Guy On A Tryout are going to impress enough against competition to earn a spot on the team.
However, instead of an arena, all eyes are focused on a boardroom where the NHL and NHLPA will (hopefully) meet to try and hammer out a deal that will avoid hockey's 3rd work stoppage in less than 20 years. Last week, talks broke off as both sides accused the other of refusing to acknowledge that their solution was best and they should just quit fighting already.
The advent of social media has meant that more and more hockey fans are connected, and if there was a PR war being waged, it's pretty obvious that the players had the support of the fans. The owners' first proposal was so ludicrous and oppressive that only the most fattest of cats sitting in their penthouse suites lighting their cigars with thousand-dollar bills could have agreed with it. Since that opening salvo, the two sides have gone back and forth to try and find common ground that will enable the 2012-13 season to start on time.
Fans are getting anxious, worried that the first few months of fall will pass without NHL hockey. As we get closer to September 15 with no deal, those fears get bigger. So we pore over Twitter updates and read any story we can get our hands on trying to make sense of the issues so that we can figure out whether they are close to reaching a deal and giving us our hockey.
The opening proposal by the owners sent the players and fans into a tizzy. After touting record-breaking revenues this past season, it was thought that the NHL as a whole was doing quite well. The owners pushed hard for a salary cap in 2005, able to present documentation showing that most of the league was bleeding money like Patrick Kane at happy hour, but this year things have changed. The owners cried poor and said that the players were being paid too much, seemingly forgetting that the most the players could make was 57% of all hockey-related revenue that was earned by the league. As revenues went up, so did the amount of money that could be paid to the players. Fans who might have been upset with the league for losing an entire season came back in record numbers, lining the owners' pockets with money to spend on the players the fans ultimately wanted to see.
I think the natural reaction to the negotiations that have transpired is to side with the players. It's pretty obvious the NHLPA essentially gave in to the owners in the last lockout, agreeing to roll back salaries to fit under a hard salary cap. This year, with cost certainty formally in place (although don't tell that to the owners in Minnesota and Nashville), the league is once again crying poor, claiming that they are losing $240M over the past 2 seasons.
"The nerve of the owners to ask the players to take less money" fans complain. In the battle of billionaires vs millionaires, no side is truly worthy of sympathy, but the inclination is to cheer for the underdog, a position the players have clearly embraced in an effort to defend their right to make even more millions while painting the owners as the bad guys. Certainly having Gary Bettman as the "face" of the BOG does nothing to enhance the likability of the NHL against the players. We don't go to games to see Mike Ilitch in the owner's suite make some fantastic moves as he eats popcorn; our eyes are focused solely on the ice to watch the players.
What gets me is when people think that the NHL is some out to "get" the fans, like this is something personal against the people who live and die with these hockey teams that to some owners simply represent a bottom line. It's hard for us to separate emotion from practicality, because we don't cheer for these teams because we know that success means more money; we do it for the feeling we get when our team wins. I'm no fan of the owners, and I think that they do take the fans a little for granted (at least when talking about the owners as a collective entity rather than as individuals), but I also don't think they enjoy screwing fans out of hockey.
These owners are, first and foremost, businessmen, and they didn't become billionaires by throwing away money on things that didn't bring them a return. That doesn't make them right or wrong; it simply makes them what they are. And let's be honest here; it's not like the players are bastions of nobility, taking less money because it's the "right" thing to do. If they don't play, they don't get paid. The players have a love of the game, but like the rest of us they also love being able to provide for their families and live a certain lifestyle that their income level can sustain.
To me, it ultimately doesn't matter. Neither the owners nor the players are looking out for the fans in this mess. Each side is concerned about maximizing their own gains in the new CBA. The owners want to reduce the amount of money that ends up in the players' wallets, while the players are trying to extract every last cent they can from the owners. It's the eternal struggle between the people who control the money and the people who want more of it. Whether it's billionaire owners who have more money to spend on yachts and tiny giraffes or the players who have more money to spend on video games and stupid hats, we the fans will still be left shelling out half a paycheck to go to a game. Perhaps if the two sides involved looked at us as an interested party rather than walking wads of cash, we might be afforded the opportunity to see the best players in the world play the sport we love so much.