Is Gary Bettman preparing to end the NHL season earlier than expected?
While no actual negotiations have taken place between the NHL and the NHLPA, a flurry of activity has occurred over the past few days in the wake Detroit Red Wings vice president Jimmy Devellano's comments. Devellano recently stated that the players were mere "cattle" in the eyes of the owners, a comment that sent the hockey world into a bit of a fit.
"The owners can basically be viewed as the ranch, and the players, and me included, are the cattle," Devellano said. "The owners own the ranch and allow the players to eat there. That's the way it's always been and that the way it will be forever. And the owners simply aren't going to let a union push them around. It's not going to happen."
Devellano was fined $250,000 by the league for his comments, with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly distancing the NHL as far away from this stance as possible. We'll have more on Devellano's comments tomorrow, and how they've been received around the league.
What is most alarming, however, is the recent reports of Gary Bettman's plan for the Winter Classic. With those plans, it seems the league may be considering canceling the entire season earlier than anyone would expect. Is this even possible?
On Friday, the Toronto Star reported that, according to a league source, commissioner Gary Bettman is planning on canceling the Winter Classic in November. The move would obviously be a major blow to the players, as that was one of the few points of leverage the NHLPA actually possesses.
"Gary told (the board of governors) he was going to cancel the Winter Classic in November because he didn't want the players to use the game as leverage," the source said.
A source close to the players said the NHLPA had heard the same thing.
"It's a scare tactic," the union source said. "It just proves the NHL has no intention of negotiating any time soon."
Who to believe? At this point, any leaks from from the NHL or NHLPA have to be taken with a grain of salt as each side fights for leverage in the case. The Winter Classic is a major, major revenue stream for both the NHL and the NHLPA and the theory is that both sides are supposedly wanting to get a deal done so the Classic isn't canceled. Over 100,000 people are expected for this game, not to mention the money that comes from HBO for the 24/7 series.
The players know how much money this event brings the league and they're going to use it for as much leverage as possible. Unless, of course, Bettman goes ahead and sweeps that out from beneath their feet.
Jesse Spector makes a good pointabout this possibility, however, stating that taking away the one major, publicity generating game would be "lunacy" for Bettman to actually do.
As cruelly brilliant as it would be for Bettman to nix the Winter Classic as a negotiator, it would be lunacy for him as the commissioner of the NHL, a league that plays 1,230 regular-season games, of which one generates any kind of buzz among the general public. You don't willfully and spitefully cancel that game two months in advance. Instead, you should wait until the very last minute, then blame the other guys for their intransigence when you finally do cancel it, if it comes to that.
Lunacy or not, if the league does cancel the classic to take away most of the leverage the players have, why wouldn't they be willing to take away all semblance of leverage the players might possess? The players have stated that they are willing to wait out season after season before they cave into the league's demands, certainly not adding any optimism to the pot for those hoping for a short lockout.
The NHL could test that resolve by going ahead and canceling the entire season. See just how steadfast the players plan on holding to their hard stance when the reality of the entirety of the season is actually gone much sooner than expected. Sound insane? Larry Brooks of the New York Post says it's certainly possible.
A well-placed source reports Bettman has told people he believes the NBA and Stern caved in to save the 2011-12 season by giving the players between 49 and 51 percent of basketball revenue as part of the agreement that ended the lockout last December, and Bettman is resolute in his stance against giving more than 48 percent to the union over the life of the next NHL agreement.
It is this extreme stance that has created a sense of fear throughout the industry that 2012-13 might go the way of 2004-05, even without the cultural and philosophical divide that existed the last time.
Brooks is one of those that believe that if the NHL were serious about wanting to actually play games sooner than later, then a deal could be reached in a relatively short amount of time. A source on the players' side stated that a deal could be reached in weeks, with an actual 50-50 revenue split, if the league was willing to make a few concessions and get serious about negotiations. Instead, the league is apparently ready to wait the players out to get the best deal possible for the owners.
What's also interesting is that Brooks says that a substantial number of teams are not looking to "hammer the players into submission," and would actually take a deal that favors both the players and the league. If this is true, and this is all based on unnamed sources, then it's clear as day that there is most certainly a divide amongst the owners -- no matter what Bettman might say.
It hasn't exactly been a good week for owners, as the league tries to convince anyone that will listen that the only solution to the problem is to cut the players salaries.
Daryl Katz, the Edmonton Oilers owner, pulled a fast one on the city this week and demanded more assistance from the public in paying for the new arena. Yesterday, the Oilers twitter account basically threatened relocation if the "requests" of the city were not met. The second wealthiest owner in the league, Phillip Anschultz, is putting his team up for sale after winning the Stanley Cup. And Devellano, apparently attempting to speak for all owners, basically said that the players are mere sheep.
Meanwhile, the league is apparently leaking the threat of the early annihilation of the 2012-13 season, just because that would be the best way to pound the players into the exact deal they want. This exact scenario essentially happened seven years ago; the owners just weren't smart enough to make that plan work, apparently. The same process could be carried out again, however Bettman would just skip the formalities and cancel the season now than later.
What would a cancellation of the season, or even the Winter Classic, do to the fanbase? I'm already figuring that the NHL is grossly underestimating the damage another lost season will do to this sport. Just because the fans came flocking back the first time doesn't mean they will again. And franchises that have been in trouble, the ones that are apparently causing the league so much trouble, will fall farther into financial despair.
I sincerely hope that Bettman and the league isn't on the verge of breaking the hearts of the league's fans just like that. I hope that they sincerely want the sport actually being played, how foolish the league looks with another lost season on the horizon. This is what we hope, but so far nothing has shown us why would have any.