By J.P. Hoornstra, AllPuck.com
For NHL fans, there is an elephant in the room. You can ignore it. You can poke at it. You can ignore it some more. But you can’t make it go away, and powerlessness is perhaps the most depressing feeling a fan can suffer.
Let’s first acknowledge the elephant. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHL and NHL Players Association is set to expire Sept. 15. We could analyze the latest wrinkle in their “negotiations,”1 but why parse words during the public-posturing phase? Perhaps you can lobby your Congressman to urge the owner of your local franchise to accept concessions that would allow training camp to start on time. But that’s not the same as putting on a jersey, getting a couple seats against the glass, and screaming at the top of your lungs for a few hours while knocking back a couple beers with your best friends, is it?
Come to think of it, this is the second straight summer hockey has been dealt this hand. Last year, the stakes were even more depressing.
Don’t you remember? Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard, Ruslan Salei and Pavol Demitra – five NHL mainstays over the last decade – all died within four months of each other. Salei and Demitra died in a plane crash on Sept. 7, 2011 that claimed the lives of an entire KHL team. Around the same time, I reached out to some NHL people to comment on the shared struggles of Belak, Rypien and Boogaard. (That proved futile2 because, contrary to some reports, the three players died for three different reasons. To say there’s a common, hockey-related cause behind their deaths would be sensationalist.) Many tried their best to raise awareness of Boogaard’s fatal drug abuse, and Rypien and Belak’s depression, and when we raise awareness about a traumatic situation, we gain a sense of control, which in turn helps overcome the feeling of powerlessness.
But when you put Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr in the same room for a few hours, with the fate of the upcoming season on the line, there is no coping. You just sit there, waiting for the situation to play out, hoping it plays out before the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on Sept. 15.
Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time thinking about the players and owners right now. They have their issues to focus on, sure, but my thoughts are with the unfortunate bystanders caught in the ripple effect of a potential lockout.
Think about the coach, the scout, the corporate luxury box salesperson, the stadium elevator operator, the website manager and the Zamboni driver. Shouldn’t they have some say in the outcome?
Of course they should. But you and I stand just as much of a chance of being allowed in the negotiating room.
“It’s not the players or the owners who suffer during a labor disagreement, it’s everyone that depends on them,” said one such NHL team employee who preferred to remain anonymous. For convenience’s sake, I’ll call him Steve.
“Of course, we’d love to see the season get started on time,” Steve continued, “but everyone in this office is so passionate about hockey — it’s why we practically spend more time in the office than we do with our families during the season.”
Steve wasn’t working in the NHL during the 2004-05 lockout, but Mark Hardy was.
A former NHL defenseman, Hardy was an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Kings at the time. He, the other assistants, and Kings head coach Andy Murray read and talked about the latest developments in the NHL/NHLPA negotiations on a daily basis. But none had a clue what was going on behind closed doors.
“I don’t think anybody knows what’s going on other than the representatives and the owners,” Hardy said. “You’re just hoping they can get it settled as soon as they can and everybody’s happy. There’s really nothing you can do.”
Then there’s the practical issue of making money during a lost season. Owners have other assets that serve as sources of revenue. Some NHL players — certainly the most well-compensated veterans — are able to save enough money to tide them over for a short while.
The same isn’t true for everyone else. Broadcasters typically get paid by the game. So do some stadium personnel, like the spotlight operators, scoreboard operators and video-board operators. Ushers, security guards and the like are often paid by the hour, but they also lose money when an arena can’t fill as many dates as an NHL schedule provides.
As for the coaches, Hardy said that the Kings paid half of his salary during the 2004-05 season. “They didn’t have to, but they were very generous.”
Now an assistant coach for the Kings’ ECHL affiliate, Hardy pointed out another facet to the ’04-05 lockout’s ripple effect: Scott Gomez played in the ECHL that season for the Alaska Aces. Chris Chelios, Bryce Salvador and Barret Jackman played in the UHL. Antero Niittymaki, 24 and on the cusp of becoming a full-time NHL starter, played for the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms and won a championship.
They all wanted to stay sharp during the longest off-season of their lives. The cost: Each took a job from one minor-leaguer who was forced to find work elsewhere — either inside hockey or in another line of work altogether. This ripple effect on non-NHL players was even more pronounced in Europe.
If there’s another lockout this season, Hardy wonders how many NHL players will play in the North American minor leagues, and how much it will impact his current team, the Ontario Reign.
“Maybe there will be a trickle-down effect where we can get some players as well,” Hardy said. “There’s a little confusion there. Are we going to get some American (Hockey) League players? How many guys should we sign? People don’t know what’s happening here.”
Hardy reads about the negotiations to stay educated. So do I.
But I can’t blame any fan who chooses not to.
“I honestly don’t read much about the negotiations because — just like the performance on the ice — I have no control over the outcome despite how much it affects me in my everyday job,” Steve said. “Having just been a fan of sports for so long, I’ve learned that the more you wrap yourself up in these kinds of labor agreements, the more frustrated you become by the whole thing.”
1. Putting the word “negotiations” in quote marks is all the editorializing I’m inclined to for now.
2. I did learn some pretty scary stuff, though. I’m holding onto it for a different story at a different time.