I presume bells chimed throughout Canada and appropriately frosty parts of the United States early Sunday morning, when everyone heard the news that the wretched NHL lockout had ended. Soldiers must have smooched nurses in Toronto's equivalent of Times Square. Children must have danced dans les rues de Montréal. And citizens of Calgary, the Jacksonville of Canada, assuredly lit fireworks in their backyards. After 113 days, and 625 cancelled games, a small but endlessly passionate army of fans had its favorite sport back. They had earned their morning to rejoice.
But the jubilation probably stopped there. During this two-week interlude between the lockout's end and the start of regular-season play, it's hard to be excited about all that much. It's hard to discern why the sport needed a lockout in the first place, and it's essentially impossible to determine that this one solved anything. Did the NHL just brazenly waste four months of our time?
Labor's rise in pro sports took a while to reach hockey. Baseball's Players Association had the great Marvin Miller -- MLB's athletes thrived by the end of the 1970s. The NFL had it all right, too: Its players walked out for greater salary and benefits in 1974 and 1982. The National Basketball Players' Association used its leverage to get a generous portion of league revenue in 1983. But, as late as 1991, the NHLPA had been led by the same man who ran it since its 1967 inception: Alan Eagleson. Eagleson was a player agent, but that was about the only sign that he had any interest in organized labor. He had run for elected office in Canada as part of a fiscally conservative party. He was chummy with the league's president and its owners. Worse, investigations by other agents and by the press, late in his tenure, revealed that he was stealing from the union. He had extravagant personal expenses reimbursed, he skimmed from the union's pension fund, and he even took a fee from players' health insurance payouts. He wound up pleading guilty to criminal charges, and spending time in jail, in 1998.
But once Eagleson was ousted, hockey got its man: Bob Goodenow. In April 1992, three months into his tenure and on the eve of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Goodenow led a 10-day strike against the league to right some of Eagleson's wrongs. He did: Players got bigger playoff shares while owners got to keep their lucrative playoff games. The union had teeth now. But the owners wanted to grow fangs, too: They fired league president John Ziegler and went hunting for a future commissioner. They soon found Gary Bettman, then a deputy at the NBA.
I won't bore you by describing in similar detail the three lockouts that followed the 1992 strike, because all of them -- dances between Bettman and Goodenow in 1994 and 2004, and Bettman and Donald Fehr in 2012 -- focused on the same issue: How do we keep small-market teams afloat? The first time around, the league and the union agreed to a rookie wage scale and a new style of salary arbitration. The second time around, the league and the union agreed to a salary cap that guaranteed players 57 percent of league revenue, with a low ceiling and a high floor. The third time around, the league and the union agreed to a salary cap that guaranteed players 50 percent of league revenue while closing loopholes that allowed long-term contract to circumvent the cap. The same old song, just played in different keys.
All of these resolutions, however much contemporary sense they made, failed to address the one central issue motivating every one of the lockouts. In 1993, before the first dispute, small-market owners had a tough time making a profit on their teams. In 2013, small-market owners will have a tough time making a profit on their teams. It's easy enough to understand why: Hockey, more than any of the other professional sports, is a game with powerful regional appeal. People love it in Canada's cities, and in a handful of American ones, and they pay plenty to watch it there. Broadcasters fork over oodles to air the games. Teams make even more off merchandise and the like. In other American markets, especially recession-hit ones, teams can't charge as much for tickets, and they assuredly can't make any money off television rights, when barely anyone besides the fans in the arena wants to watch the team. And, cripes, who would ever want to buy a Blue Jackets jersey?
The nature of the league's salary cap makes the problem worse. It may aid competitive balance -- although any observer of the early-aughts New York Rangers would tell you otherwise -- but it creates financial problems for smaller teams. When league revenues tick up, every team has to pay more, even the ones whose revenues haven't increased. The relatively high salary floor poses an additional problem on top of that. Teams are not permitted to lag behind. So long as owners expect their teams to function as effective investments, most of the league's owners will find themselves unsatisfied. But no one wants simply to contract the laggards. It would limit the number of jobs available to union members, and it would thwart Bettman's decidedly non-terrible plan to cultivate nationwide interest in (and, by extension, a particularly lucrative TV deal for) hockey. So what's the league to do?
Revenue sharing would work. But it's not happening. According to The Globe and Mail, revenue sharing ticked up slightly in the new CBA -- it's now at over $200 million annually, when it had been at $150 million before. That's still nowhere near enough to save the league's troubled teams. The small-market teams will continue struggling to meet the salary floor, particularly if league revenues boom the way they have recently, under Bettman's guidance. The NHL's owners appear to misunderstand that cutting the players a smaller piece of the pie does little to solve most teams' problem in the long term. It's like trying to cover a gushing head wound with, well, pie.
Here we stumble upon the biggest tragedy of this past lockout, one far more serious than all those games we lost. The owners took an internecine quarrel, blamed players for it, and somehow managed to wring significant concessions from them. They pulled it off because they were preventing players from working their regular jobs. And while they were getting away with that, they did nothing to address their own structural problems that left us here twice prior.
So we'll be back for another lockout in 2020. The nominal stakes will be different, but the real stakes won't have changed. We'll all be wiser, though. We can only hope that the involved parties will be, too.