Sports  The aftermath of the lockout

Players gain some key victories; fans return en masse

For five long, agonizing months hockey fans held their breath as the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA)  and National Hockey League (NHL) negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Since September 15, 510 games had been cancelled. To fill that fathomless void, too many ‘non’ competitive games of Monopoly were played, too many trivial basketball games were watched, and too little beer was consumed. But on January 2, the lockout officially came to an end.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily, Alexandra Dagg – the Director of Operations for the NHLPA  – and former Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup winner Mathieu Schneider – now special assistant for the NHLPA – shared their opinions about the results and implications of the lockout. (No spokesman for the league could be reached).

“It was a very difficult dispute. It had a lot of hallmarks of an irrational labour dispute which meant that it became very difficult to resolve, much more difficult then it should have been,” says Dagg. “But we had an amazing unified group of players…and they were incredible during a difficult period.” [Full disclosure: the author of this piece is closely related to Dagg.] “Given the circumstances we did really well,” says Schneider, “especially [considering] the NFL [National Football League] and NBA [National Basketball League] deals done before us. We had to deal with a precedence of bad deals for players.” The NHL lockout followed disputes in the NFL and NBA, both of which were resolved more quickly, with the player unions making major concessions in both cases.

This was the third lockout of Gary Bettman’s 19-year reign as commissioner of the NHL; an entire season was lost in 2004 and part of one in 1994. The new CBA includes a number of significant changes. Revenue shared between the players and team owners will now be split 50/50 – the players previously received 57 per cent. The new salary cap for players will be $64.3 million and the cap floor will be $44 million.

For the first time in league history, the players will receive a pension plan. The main reason for this is that on average, NHL careers are very short. “The players have very short careers. It is important for the guys who do have short careers to have money saved for the future for when they are older,” says Dagg. “The average NHL career is only three years. There are three hundred players who make a million or less, [which is] a lot of money but that’s their lifetime achievement,” says Schneider. “[These players] work [their] entire lives for those three years, then they’re retired.” The pension plan is an often-overlooked part of the new deal that could make a big difference for the players, and is one of the few victories the players gained in negotiations. “The pension was the only thing in the new CBA that went in the players direction, everything else was a concession to the owners, this was the only true significant gain for players,” says Dagg.

The most notable clause in the new CBA is that the length of the deal will be ten years with an opt-out option after eight. “One benefit is that we have guaranteed labour peace for at least eight years,” says Schneider. “But the downside is that we are negotiating for kids that are ten years old. They don’t have a say in the system they are coming into.”

“Players who aren’t playing yet will have no say in their working conditions; a big part of collective bargaining is that the workers participate in the process of negotiating their own working conditions, with players who have short careers, there could be a whole generation of players who don’t participate in it,” says Dagg.

The length of the deal, despite the possible negative impact on future players, is tremendously reassuring to fans. “The assumption is that every single time the bargaining agreement expires there is going to be a lockout or a strike,” adds Schneider. Historically, though, this has been the case. When the agreement signed after the 2004 lockout ended, this lockout ensued. So what is there to stop this from reoccurring in eight years?

The answer lies in the difference between the two disputes. The 2004 NHL lockout was characterized by the collapse of the players’ union. The owners walked all over the players, leading to the momentous implementation of a salary cap system. But this past lockout was quite different. “The way the players stood up for themselves makes it less likely to happen again. The unity and confidence of the players means they won’t be pushed around by the owners anymore,” says Schneider. The stronger the players’ union, the better the balance of power and thus a higher likelihood that the league will be willing to settle sooner, knowing that they can no longer gain so easily. “Both sides have to figure out how to build a positive relationship, one based on respect for the players and their role in the game, if that can be achieved it will help when we sit down again,” says Dagg.

Hockey fans have endured rough times. They have seen more games lost due to labour disputes than any other sport in the past twenty years. They have seen an unyielding ignorance on the part of the NHL in maintaining struggling franchises in the Southern U.S. while potential prominent Canadian markets remain unventured. Now, with the end of a third lockout, the prevalent question remaining is whether the fans have had enough; are they fed up, or will their love of the game persevere?

First-year McGill student and avid hockey fan Sason Ross shared his opinions about the post-lockout NHL with The Daily. “I have no lingering anger toward either side. I was angry during the lockout. There were those days when I was just like, ‘god, I want there to be hockey’, but I’ve put that in the past like most fans should… however angry I was, my love for this beautiful sport will never change. Nothing could be done to take away my love for this game,” he says.

These two past weekends, hockey fans like Ross returned in droves. The NHL experienced some of their highest ratings in recent history. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ opening game against the Montreal Canadiens on CBC drew 3.3 million viewers. The New York Rangers experienced their highest season opener rating since 1995 (the year after the Rangers won the Stanley Cup). The Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, and New Jersey Devils all experienced exceptionally high TV ratings as well.

There is something about hockey that keeps drawing us back. From year to year, game to game, and shift to shift we cannot avert our eyes. Its history is ingrained with unforgettable moments of hardship and triumph. It has the flash of iconic heroes, the grind-it-out toughness of the common fan, and the struggle for relevance for teams with fan bases just looking for a winner to applaud. No other sport is as uniquely composed of strength, creativity, and devotion. While some might have turned their backs on hockey, most rejoice in the return of the game that continually captures their curiosity and passion.