My guest today is Gary Bettman. He is 60 years old, the commissioner of the National Hockey League. He has held that post since Feb. 1, 1993. He is in the news these days because the NHL was shut down over the weekend in a lockout, the third work stoppage of his 19 years on the job. The last lockout in 2004-2005 wiped out the entire season.
(I know. Gary Bettman is not really here. I am talking to an empty chair. I don't know where I get these ideas. Sometimes I think I'm a genius.)
Hello, Gary. Glad to have you in the chair. I know you're a busy man. Let's get right down to it …
(You can visualize Gary. He's a smallish guy, short haircut, looks like a successful lawyer/businessman, which he is. You can make him nod a little bit here and there. No problem.)
Three lockouts in 19 years! That's an amazing record for a professional sports executive. I would have thought after the first lockout in 1994-95, your first full season on the job, you would have tried harder to get the two parties together before the end of each collective bargaining agreement. Thirty-four of 82 games were lost that time. Certainly after the last lockout, after the entire 2004-05 season was lost, you would have moved heaven and earth to avoid this one.
What's that? Sometimes heaven and earth just don't want to move? Hah. Very true. Especially if the 30 owners in your league own all the bulldozers. Hah.
(You will notice that I have the light, but tough approach with the imaginary Gary. I find that the light but tough approach works best with all imaginary characters.)
The crux of this dispute, and correct me if I am wrong, Gary, is that the owners want the players to give back money. Isn't that it? The players currently receive 54 percent of all hockey-related revenue in the NHL. That is the amount of money used to determine the salary cap. The owners would like to drop that percentage to 46 in the next agreement, maybe even change some of the definitions of what is and what is not "hockey-related revenue" to drop the figure even lower. This conceivably would cut salaries, blah, blah, and the owners would have a better chance at clearing a profit, and surviving in these hard economic times.
Do I have this right?
My problem is that the players gave back money to end the last lockout. They agreed to the salary cap that is in place. That was a big deal, and the major reason the whole argument was settled. Now you want the players to give back again? I know that givebacks are the trend in most modern labor discussions these days, but isn't this a different situation?
For the rest of us, givebacks involve medical benefits, pensions, overtime, sick leave, a variety of workplace positives that were accumulated through the years by negotiations. We're in businesses like newspapers, banks, steel mills, manufacturing, just about everything else in our society that is hurting. We're sharing the pain.
The NHL doesn't seem to have that pain.
The league's revenue stream has grown by 7 percent every year since the last lockout. That's pretty darn good. There should be enough money here and in the future to continue a reasonable version of the present agreement. Check your own salary, Gary. You've gone from $3.7 million per year to $7.9 million in those eight years, more than doubled, according to federal tax filings. That's pretty darn good, too.
Do you have to give back?
(OK, you can see the imaginary Gary squirm a little here. That's right. Squirm away. It's good for the soul.)
Here's the deal:
I know you're an owner's guy, Gary. You've mostly done the hard Oil Can Harry work as commissioner, showing up to kick the widow woman and her many kids off the farm in places like Winnipeg and Quebec City, Hartford and Minneapolis. You've made a bunch of tough business moves in your career. That is why all of Canada can't stand you, why you're booed from the moment your plane hits the tarmac up there on your few visits. The players -- just check the recent stories online -- also can't stand you. You're not a lovable hockey character.
This lockout is the chance to change a lot of that. Talk with your owners. Be tough. Tell them that they have a pretty good deal already. Get them to saddle up the bulldozers to move a little earth, a touch of heaven. Oh, sure, twist a few knobs, change some paragraphs, make the deal a little better for management, but be a statesman. How's that for a strategy? Work for the common good for once. Bring the wishes of the paying public to the bargaining table.
Mention that the league finally has a pretty good television deal, even though the typical commercials still are for the pocket fishermen or some product that slices, dices, vacuums without being told, and teaches your kids Spanish. The money stream is there. Tell the owners that they already have parity, too. The Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup last year as an eighth seed. There isn't any better parity than that.
Work with this Donald Fehr, the baseball guy who's now running the union for the players. You're a basketball guy at heart, David Stern's assistant at the NBA before you came here. So have a basketball guy work with a baseball guy to figure out this hockey mess. Lock the doors, and don't let anyone leave until there's an agreement. Sign a bunch of papers and start everyone marching back to work, singing like the Seven Dwarfs.
Is that too hard?
I don't think so, Gary.
Be a statesman. Make my day.
(I shake the hand of the imaginary Gary Bettman. I wave him off to imaginary applause. He waves back at the imaginary crowd. I am left here with the empty chair.)
Tune in tomorrow.
Our imaginary guest will be Lance Armstrong. We will ask him about steroids, human growth hormone and his wondrous cycling career.