SPORTS

Hockey night is back

With the lockout over, the NHL prepares for a short, sweet season

JAMES DEACON January 23 1995
SPORTS

Hockey night is back

With the lockout over, the NHL prepares for a short, sweet season

JAMES DEACON January 23 1995

Hockey night is back

With the lockout over, the NHL prepares for a short, sweet season

JAMES DEACON

DAN HAWALESHKA

SPORTS

THE DEAL

Temí: Expires Sept 15,2000. But if the league or the players choose, either side can reopen it at the end of the 1997-1998 season.

Draft: Players are automatically eligible at age 19, although 18-year-olds have the right to elect to be drafted.

Entry-level compensation: The maximum annual salary for rookies in the 1995 draft is $850,000; the scale rises to $1,075,000 by the year 2000.

Unrestricted free agency: Players 32 or older can sign with any team at the end of their contract during the first three years of the new agreement; during the final three years, they become free agents at 31. Salaiy arbitration: Most players are ineligible for arbitration in their first five years in the league. Arbitration is not completely binding: clubs are allowed to walk away from three award decisions every two years, making the players free agents.

At lunchtime outside Maple Leaf Gardens, a few Torontonians trudging along the slushy sidewalk let out seemingly inexplicable cheers of “Go Leafs Go.” The Leafs were not playing that day; in fact, they had not played since last September. Instead, the random acts of elation on Jan. 11 saluted the end of the National Hockey League’s 103-day lockout. In offices only a few blocks to the south, the NHL Players Association had just given its conditional blessing to a new collective agreement with team owners, saving a 48game version of the 1994-1995 season. That decision—ratified by the rank and file two days later—put 26 teams back on the ice and set off a wave of anticipation across the continent. “Everybody’s talking about it,” said Griff Whyte, manager of the Palomino Club bar in Winnipeg, “and they’re happy now that hockey’s back in town.” Fans could just as easily have tuned out. They had, after all, endured one of the ugliest chapters in hockey history. At times, the bitter labor dispute mimicked one of hockey’s most ubiquitous training drills, called stops and starts, in which skaters race madly between the lines of the rink in a gruelling rendition of two steps forward, one step back. Throughout most of the negotiations, however, two steps forward and one step back would have been an improvement. Long before it was resolved, the clash had lost its credibility as countless deadlines and supposed “final” offers passed without producing an agreement. The two sides came perilously close to cancelling the entire season over issues that, to millions of fans who wish they could make a living on skates, seemed rather petty. “It’s really hard for the average person in North America to understand why athletes complain and bicker over the kind of money they are making,” said Wayne Gretzky of the Los Angeles Kings. “Consequently, the image of our sport is probably going to suffer for a while.” But for all their frustration, fans are generally a forgiving

lot. Just as they had after protracted disputes in other sports, they welcomed the NHL’s return, particularly in Canada where not having a game to watch on Saturday night was like missing an old friend. Knowing that, CBC rebroadcast a 1979 Montreal-Boston playoff game on Jan. 7, and drew an average of 1.09 million viewers—comparable to the audience for live coverage. And the network plans to air three games in two nights— one on Jan. 20, a doubleheader the following night—to capitalize on the pent-up excitement. While the players may be rusty at first, most claim that the upcoming short season will nevertheless be sweet. ‘With a 48-game schedule, it’s like the playoffs start with the first game,” said Patrick Roy, the veteran Montreal netminder. “There’s no time to lose.”

The deal that saved the season was designed to meet the owners’ basic aim of slowing down increases in player salaries. Over the past five years, the average NHL income has doubled to $560,000 a year. And while that is less than half the average in baseball and basketball, teams in Quebec City, Hartford and Wmnipeg, among others, claimed it was too much for their franchises. As a result, the owners pushed to create a punitive tax on higher-than-average payrolls in the early stages of the negotiations. The players viewed the tax as a salary cap, and when their chief negotiator, Bob Goodenow, flatly rejected the concept, the owners shut down the season last Oct. 1. It was only after three months of fruitless talks that the league took the tax off the table—against the wishes of a group of hardline owners—and the eventual agreement took shape.

Even without the payroll tax, however, most analysts score this latest labor fight as a victory for the owners. All but one item in the final agreement—unrestricted free agency at age 32, leaving a player free to sign with any team—is a significant concession by the players from the terms of the previous agreement. Areas such as binding arbitration (a third party determines a player’s salary), which the owners said helped to drive up salaries, have been revised in the owners’ favor. The players also agreed to a rookie salary cap, which the owners wanted to staunch the inflationary influence of huge freshman contracts paid to such recent newcomers as Eric Lindros ($5 million in 1992) and Alexandre Daigle ($12.25 million for five years starting in 1993). And while NHL players did win unrestricted free agency, it was a somewhat hollow victory: only a small minority of players have careers lengthy enough to take advantage of that new freedom. “This isn’t going to prevent inflation, by any stretch of the imagination,” said Vancouver Canucks owner Arthur Griffiths. “What it will do is allow teams to set a budget and stick to it.” While owners supported the deal by a vote of 19 to 7, the dissenters continued to grumble about the league’s failure to incorporate a payroll tax to curb free-spending teams. “I recognize,” said Marcel Aubut of the Quebec Nordiques, “that the majority of the industry can live with the agreement that was negotiated, but it’s difficult to accept for a small market such as Quebec.” Bettman, however, said the owners opted for the current terms when they examined the alternatives. “If all 26 owners had said that they had to have a tax or a cap, we could have pursued them, but in my judgment it would have cost the entire season,” Bettman said. “Many people, including me, thought that if there was a way to preserve the season, then that should be done.”

Still, the owners did lose something in the negotiations. Player-owner relations have traditionally been more congenial in hockey than in other sports; the bitterness of the lockout may well spoil that atmosphere on many teams. And while the deal should help keep a lid on ticket prices, NHL hockey is already too pricey for some. Don Miller, a 47year-old RCMP sergeant from Vancouver, complains that the best seats at the Pacific Coliseum cost $63.25. “It’s getting so the average Canadian won’t be able to afford to go to hockey games,” said Miller.

The length of the deal—six years, with each side allowed to reopen after the fourth year—guarantees labor peace at least until the summer of 1998. That grace period, the league and its players hope, will give the sport a chance to make gains in North America and overseas—and give owners and players time to assess whether they can live with the new deal. The league must also address a problem unique to Canadian clubs, which continue to operate at a severe disadvantage because of the falling value of the Canadian dollar. The Canucks’ Griffiths says that his U.S.-dollar payroll totals $19 million, while he takes in only $2.5 million in U.S. currency from TV and merchandise sales. League governors have promised to examine the issue, but offered no guarantees.

While a half-season was salvaged, the lockout itself was a killer. Players, owners, agents, concessionaires and bar owners, among others, all lost 36 games’ worth of salaries, gate receipts, TV revenues, and beer and hotdog sales. Paule Riverin, director of sales and marketing at the Château Frontenac in Quebec City, said the landmark hotel missed the income generated by housing visiting teams—at least $5,000 per team per visit, she said. Now that the Nordiques are back, she added, “it’s a sigh of relief for everyone.”

And only just in time. The lockout had cast a dark cloud over what should have been hockey’s season in the sun. For reasons of good timing as much as good management, hockey has recently flourished in the United States. A boom in the minor leagues, the NHL’s expansion into the Sunbelt and the remarkable popularity of in-line skates have made the game accessible to millions of Americans who had once viewed “ice hockey” as the pastime of a frozen few. Capitalizing on the emerging interest in the sport, Fox Broadcasting, the upstart U.S. network, signed a five-year, $212-million contract to air NHL regular-season and playoff games, starting this month. “Hopefully, we’ll win over the fans we had and win over new fans that we don’t have,” Gretzky said. “I guess that’s what we are all counting on.”

The two main combatants, Goodenow and Bettman, also seemed happy to put the dispute behind them. They waged their battle with icy professionalism befitting Ivy League lawyers—Goodenow of Harvard versus Bettman of Cornell. But while it is fair to say that the owners gained the most from the contract fight, Goodenow did not lose the war. He performed the extraordinary feat of keeping about 700 members informed and, with only one or two exceptions, in line with the association’s stated aims. And once the players dug in against the payroll tax, the association never wavered. “Anyone who doesn’t respect Bob, or further endorse his future as our executive director, is crazy,” said Marty McSorley, a defenceman with the Los Angeles Kings.

When Bettman was hired away from the National Basketball Association in February, 1993, the owners handed him a to-do list headed by three major tasks left undone during the 15-year tenure of John Ziegler: bring order to the league’s chaotic New York City headquarters; get a U.S. network TV deal; negotiate a new, owner-friendly collective agreement with the players. Even his critics admit he performed the first two tasks admirably. Now, he has managed the third, although during negotiations many players and reporters had painted New Yorker Bettman as the villain—a hardwood honcho on thin ice in hockey. It was not until the final stages, when it was clear that Bettman was fighting to save the season against the sentiments of some of his hardline masters, that his image underwent some rehabilitation. Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, whose team remains mired in baseball limbo because of an unresolved players’ strike, admitted to being envious of the NHL settlement. “You have to hand it to Goodenow and Bettman for getting the deal done,” Beeston said. “That’s no easy task in sports these days.”

This week, after months of threats, deadlines and “final, final, final, final, final” offers (in the words of Boston Bruins president Harry Sinden), the fans finally have their game back. The players have exchanged their suits and ties for pads and sticks. Without preseason games to assess, some handicappers trying to pick a favorite team have unearthed the historic precedent that, in 1941-1942—the last time the NHL played a 48-game season—the Maple Leafs defeated the Detroit Red Wings for the Stanley Cup. That is enough to incite ever-optimistic Torontonians to even greater heights of merrymaking. But 25 other teams will have something to say about that before the Stanley Cup is awarded next June.