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Bettman, Fehr, players and media all losers as NHL lockout comes to an end

January 6, 2013 1 comment

Gary Bettman Donald Fehr joint announcement end NHL Lockout CBA

With a farcical buddy-buddy joint announcement from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHPLA Executive Director Donald Fehr, the National Hockey League’s third lockout in 18 years has come to an end.

After months of sabre-rattling, media-baiting and gamesmanship, the NHL Players Association and the NHL have come to an agreement that saves the 2012-2013 season, but leaves the reputation of the sport in shambles. They avoided cancelling the season, but millions of dollars in revenue have been lost, and legions of fans have turned their backs on – or completely forgotten – NHL hockey.

Where the 2004-2005 lockout was sold to fans as a necessary push to establish cost certainty and league viability through a salary cap, this lockout had no singular identifiable issue for fans to understand and accept.

No issue except money, that is. The owners wanted to make more, and the players were going to have to surrender more for that to happen.

When billionaires fight with millionaires over money, it becomes extremely tough to explain it to the blue-collar paying customers.

With the NBA and NFL having established 50-50 revenue splits in their respective collective bargaining agreements one year previous, it seemed a fait accompli that the players would be surrendering their 57% share. The NHLPA’s Fehr went in from a concessionary position, so it became a game of delay tactics and dirty negotiating – a game he played very well.

Fehr proved himself to be a pro at playing head games to infuriate his league counterpart Gary Bettman into submission. He routinely showed up late to meetings. He wrote proposals on napkins and delivered them off the cuff. He repeatedly told the media “we’re close” only to have Bettman’s people refute it a few minutes later.

Fehr, a former titan of Major League Baseball union negotiations, was brought in for exactly this purpose. The NHLPA was left reeling after the 2004-2005 lockout, as then-leader Bob Goodenow was axed shortly after being circumvented by his membership to solve that lockout. Replacement Ted Saskin lasted only two years before getting gassed for hacking players’ private emails. Paul Kelly took over in 2007, but was overthrown in 2009 by various player and union advisors pressuring him out.

The players knew they’d need a strong hand for these negotiations, so they got the strongest one they could find. Fehr was their hired gun, and he did exactly what he was expected to: he battled the owners for every inch they took. Now he’ll ride off into the sunset, a one-and-done executive director who may well leave the union in the hands of his younger brother Steve.

Steve Fehr's ugly sweater NHL Lockout CBA


Steve Fehr uses Ugly Sweater negotiation tactics.

Donald Fehr’s tactics were maddening, but he seemed to keep his calm throughout the negotiations.

Not so for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman was often seen visibly upset and frustrated these past months, as Fehr’s tactics continued to drive him to the edge. Bettman repeatedly put time limits on his offers, threatened to take things off the table, and made grand pronouncements. One of the more famous declarations of this lockout came from his lieutenant, Bill Daly, who declared that 5-year contract limits were “the hill we will die on.”

Well, the new deal allows for 8-year terms.

This 10-year deal may well be the last one negotiated under Gary Bettman. Bettman has never been popular (he gets booed at every Stanley Cup presentation) but whatever scorn the NHL players used to have for him has turned to outright hatred with this lockout.

Bettman poisoned the waters for these negotiations right away when he lowballed the players with an offered cut of just 43% of revenue. The offer only insulted and galvanized the players into a resolute union, making Bettman’s task all the more difficult going forward. The league got its way in the last lockout by letting the players destroy themselves; this time, they foolishly gave the players a reason to band together.

Bettman’s written his legacy through these lockouts, and he’s become a symbol for the labour strife that dogs the league. The league’s owners would do well to turn the page on Bettman and appoint a new face to the position.

Bettman and Fehr weren’t the only parties who looked silly in this lockout.

There’s no doubt it was often painful to watch the league and its players scrapping over money these past hundred-something days, but at times it was worse to pay attention to the media outlets covering them. The Canadian media – itself built around broadcasting hockey above all other sports – turned into a gaggle of devotees chasing the negotiations around, begging for scraps of information.

Nightly television hits said the same things for months. “Talks have broken down.” “Sources suggests there is reason for optimism.” “There are no talks scheduled.” “There were only small group meetings on non-core issues.” “They continue to debate hockey-related revenue.” Etcetera. Etcetera.

The Canadian media machine – primarily TSN and Rogers Sportsnet – had hordes of reporters at the NHL’s New York offices every time a development was possible. Reporters sat outside the various negotiation sites in New York for months on end, waiting for a quote, a tidbit, or a puff of white smoke out the chimney to announce a new deal. They were there on New Years Eve in Times Square, shoulder to shoulder with revelers, their eyes on the office building in front of them, not the 2013 ball high overhead. They fought the cold by huddling in an ATM booth to keep warm, all in anticipation of an announcement – any kind of announcement – from the principal parties.

The league and the PA twice held negotiations in a ‘secret location,’ which meant farcical TV spots of reporters wandering the streets of New York, practically peering through windows in search of Bettman and Fehr.

Sports reporters did their very best to explain matters completely outside their realm of expertise. New terms like “make whole,” “decertification” and “disclaimer of interest” became the talking points for guys used to breaking down a power play and explaining a left wing lock.

The lockout also meant nothing but bad news for players’ reputations. Idle hands, millions of dollars and Twitter don’t mix well. Just ask Ian White, Kris Versteeg or Evander Kane.

Evander Kane Winnipeg Jets Twitter money Holyfield picture

Evander Kane, enduring the NHL lockout as best he can.

This was not an ideological lockout. It was a cock fight. The players had to hang in for a full three rounds without being broken by the league, and the league was determined to ease the burden on its flawed financial model by taking what it could from the PA.

10 years from now, we may well be right back here again. If history has shown anything, it’s that the owners’ greatest enemies are themselves. They were signing players to ridiculous 13-year deals mere weeks before the lockout happened, only to turn around and demand 5-year contract lengths.

The owners will always look for ways to knife each other by going around the rules, and player agents will always find ways to offer that knife. Agents will be examining this deal for loopholes right away. Last time they came up with long-term, back-diving contracts to get around inflated cap hits. That’s been closed this time, but they’ll find something else.

The lockout is over. The damage is done. a $3 billion business will be much less in the coming years, as much of the headway the league has made in the United States is undone.

For a lockout that was all about splitting up money, there will be much less of it to share because of this childishness.

Electronic Arts NHL 13 Gary Bettman Lockout

I was getting used to only seeing hockey on the PS3.

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Belcher tragedy a reminder of the toll pro sport takes on the rank-and-file athlete

December 1, 2012 1 comment

Jovan Belcher Kansas City Chiefs Murder Suicide NFL Football

The specifics of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide continue to pour out, and while the broad strokes are grimly familiar, the key difference must not be forgotten: a woman was murdered, and her killer took his own life.

There are memorials and shrines and kind words now for Jovan Belcher, but his crime – and his demons – must not be swept under the rug.

Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins on Saturday, December 1. Immediately afterward, he drove to the Chiefs practice facility, thanked his coach and general manager and shot himself in the head in front of them. He leaves behind a three-month-old daughter that he had with Perkins.

There have been too many pro athlete deaths in the last year, but Belcher’s is the worst in that he is the only one to take a victim with him.

Dave Duerson. Junior Seau. Derek Boogaard. Rick Rypien. Wade Belak. And now, Jovan Belcher.

Concussions. Substance abuse. Roid rage. Painkiller addiction. Depression. One, some or all of these were factors in the deaths of the aforementioned athletes. We deify the men who wear our favourite team’s jersey, but the truth is that these are mortals just like the rest of us, and they are as flawed and weak as anyone. The only difference is that they are in the public eye, and when they fall, we see them fall. When they fall hard, we all feel it.

There’s an all-too common refrain you’ll hear in a bar whenever athletes fight over money: “Those bums make millions of dollars to play a game. I’d play in the big leagues for free!” It’s an easy statement to make from the comfort of your couch, but it totally disregards the brutality of the life these athletes lead. League owners make hundreds of millions of dollars off the pain that their players endure. Those players are absolutely entitled to money for the blood they shed. And that bloodshed is sometimes too much for an athlete to handle.

The NFL and NHL – the two hardest-hitting professional sports leagues in the world – have also been the hardest hit in terms of suicide. Some athletes, like Seau and Belak, were only a few years removed from their playing days. Others, like Boogaard and Belcher, were in their prime. None were superstars. All worked hard and took a beating for a living. They were the grinders and the muscle, the grunts and the footsoldiers. They kept their star teammates shiny, and they got dirty doing it.

Professional athletes are modern day gladiators in a bloodsport built on television ratings. Team games are the biggest draws, and teams necessarily have role players. The high skill guys are in huge demand and make the most money because they do what others can’t do.

On the other end of that spectrum are the guys who do what most players just don’t want to do. They’ve got marginal skill but they’re strong, they’re willing to dish out the punishment and – more importantly – they’re willing to take it. They don’t get paid nearly as much yet they take the most brutal attacks. In football, these are the massive linebackers who crash into equally-sized men on the other side. In hockey, these are the bare-knuckle brawlers who smash each other in the face once a night, get 5 minutes of icetime and spend the rest of the game riding the bench or stewing in the penalty box.

Linebackers crash heads. Hockey fighters take punches to the head. These men are suffering concussion after concussion, and the rest of their bodies are also suffering constant physical trauma. Their job performance is fueled by violence and aggression, and when the game is over they go home to their lives and their families.

It is, understandably, a challenging change in mindset.

Jovan Belcher with girlfriend Kasandra Perkins and daughter Zoe

Jovan Belcher with girlfriend Kasandra Perkins and daughter Zoe.

The fact is, these men surrender the happiness and health of their later years to make their living in a short window of time, and that accelerated scale is sometimes too much for a person. It can leave them ill-equipped to deal with everyday life after – and even during – their careers.

Professional athletes are sheltered and guided through their entire career. They’re told what to eat, when to sleep, what to do on the field, what city to live in, and where to be in order to catch a plane. They have agents who handle their money for them, and their only responsibility is to do what they’re told and play like they’re capable of playing.

But there are aspects of life that no one can protect them against. There’s depression. There’s the pain of injury, and the difficulty of fighting through pain. There’s the allure of painkillers and steroids to find an edge. There’s the trap of having too much money all at once, and not be able to earn in your later years. And there’s the everyday stuff – like Belcher’s newborn daughter – that each person must navigate for himself. And that’s where some athletes suffer the most.

In 2011, the hockey world was rattled by the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. Six-foot seven New York Ranger Boogaard had OxyContin and Percocet addictions, and they caught up with him on a night of heavy drinking in May. His brother found him dead in his bed. Rypien – a borderline NHL pugilist – killed himself on August 15, mere weeks after signing an NHL contract with the Winnipeg Jets. He suffered from depression and had been serving a lengthy suspension for an altercation with a fan in Vancouver the previous season. Only 16 days later, Wade Belak, a former heavyweight who spent most of his career with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Nashville Predators, hung himself in a Toronto hotel room. He, too, had been fighting depression for years, but appeared to have everything together in his post-playing career. He had done some broadcast work with the Predators and was preparing to appear on CBC’s Battle of the Blades figure skating reality show.

Wade Belak Toronto Maple Leafs with daughter

Wade Belak with his daughter at a Leafs game.

Over the coming days, there will be more investigation into the Belcher murder-suicide. Belcher didn’t have a history of concussions, unlike many of the aforementioned athletes. He was a starting linebacker with a firmly established role on his team, and he was not at the end of his career by any means. Early reports indicate he shot his girlfriend five times, and that the two were known to have been arguing in recent weeks.

Whatever demons Belcher had, they did not appear on a stats sheet. For an undrafted linebacker, they may well have appeared in a blood test.

Jovan Belcher was a professional athlete, but he wasn’t invulnerable. The man needed help, and he didn’t get it. Now an innocent woman is dead, and so is her killer.

Phoenix Coyotes will still have a snowball’s chance in Arizona after sale

November 24, 2012 Leave a comment
Phoenix Coyotes National Hockey League NHL Shane Doan

Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan.

As the National Hockey League’s season teeters on the brink of cancellation for the second time in less than a decade, there’s one burning issue that will not be solved by these negotiations, and that’s the ownerless financial abyss known as the Phoenix Coyotes.

Every professional sports league has its poor cousin franchises, those teams that just can’t keep up financially with the likes of the New York Yankees, Toronto Maple Leafs or New England Patriots. But the Phoenix Coyotes have become more than just the NHL’s poor cousin. Phoenix is the poor cousin who moves into your basement, eats your food, sleeps all day and swears he’s looking for a job, but he’s holding out for a management position, thank you very much.

The Coyotes have been for sale since 2005 when then-owner Jerry Moyes declared bankruptcy and attempted to sell the team to Canadian BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie, whose stated goal was to move the team to Hamilton. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was enraged by Balsillie trying to enter the league by the back door, and he eventually beat the Research in Motion CEO in court. The win allowed the NHL to buy the team with the goal of flipping it to an approved owner at a later date.

Fast forward to the end of 2012 and the league still owns the Coyotes. The Coyotes remain a horrible draw in Arizona thanks to a poorly-placed arena and, more significantly, an inability to win over a sun-drenched marketplace. Even after two consecutive playoff appearances, the Coyotes have been unable to turn anything close to a profit. In fact, the opposite is true: their hometown of Glendale has been footing $25 million a year for the last two years to cover the team’s losses and keep it as the anchor tenant at Jobing.com Arena. They’ve been throwing good money after bad to keep that arena operational while the NHL has strung the city along with almost-owner after almost-owner.

The Phoenix ownership saga may come to an end this year, but it’s also very likely this latest scheme will fall flat. Former San Jose Sharks president and CEO Greg Jamison declared he would buy the team this summer, but he’s been checking under the couch cushions for cash ever since, and the sale has not been made. It was close to happening in September but was delayed while Jamison sought more funding. Now he has the dough and Glendale will hold a vote on the lease deal on Tuesday.

Gary Bettman and Greg Jamison NHL Phoenix Coyotes ownership Glendale

Prospective Phoenix Coyotes owner Greg Jamison (left) with Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Jamison’s purchase price is expected to be in the $160 million range, but the NHL often inflates their announced sale numbers. Regardless, the finances between Glendale and Jamison are where the numbers get interesting.

Jamison is locked in for a 20-year term. He will pay the city $286 million in rent to use the arena, but will receive $320 million to manage it. Nevermind that his management skills are apparently less valuable than Hulsizer’s ($39.4 million per year offered to Hulsizer, compared to $15 million for Jamison), but the city remains in debt to whoever buys the team. The Arizona Republic ran the numbers on the Jamison deal and concluded that even if the Coyotes reached the Stanley Cup Final every year for the next 20 years – an impossible proposition in itself – the city would still stand to lose about $9 million on the deal.

Jamison’s close, but he’s not the first to almost buy the team. Bettman has, at various times, had investor group Ice Edge Holdings and Chicago investors Jerry Reinsdorf and Matthew Hulsizer ready to buy the team, but each time the deal has fallen through, whether under the threat of lawsuits by the watchdog Goldwater Institute or because the numbers simply did not make sense.

Despite the unattractiveness of the team, Bettman has repeatedly told media outlets that he’s got multiple investors lined up to buy it. Each time all hope seems lost, Bettman does the management equivalent of drunk dialing an old girlfriend: he rings up Ice Edge, Reinsdorf, or another of his buddies to kick the tires and make the team look attractive. Jamison – a Bettman pal from his Sharks days – may be the one to close the deal, but it’s looked like this before. The closest suitor before Jamison has been Matthew Hulsizer, who showed up at some Coyote playoff games with the jersey and foam finger act before turning down a sweetheart deal from Glendale so he could buy the St. Louis Blues instead.

Glendale has been, in many ways, the culprit of its own demise. Mayor Elaine Scruggs and city councilors have been adamant that the arena must hold on to its anchor tenant in order to keep the surrounding strip mall alive and provide jobs in a state economy crippled by recession. To that effect, Glendale has twice covered the NHL’s operating costs of $25 million per year to keep the Coyotes in place. They dipped into emergency funds to finance the 2011-2012 season and were forced to cut city services to pay the NHL. Library, police, road repair and firefighter budgets took a hit to keep the hockey team in the desert.

Every deal for every prospective owner has incorporated some form of loss protection or exorbitant “arena management fee” to be paid by the city to the purchaser. Glendale tried to sell bonds to help Reinsdorf raise $165 million to buy the team, and when that deal fell through, they were ready to pay Hulsizer $197 million over five years to run the arena and parking facilities nearby.

The problem with Jobing.com Arena is that it’s what real estate developers call a green banana. It was built in the path of major real estate development, but that development is still years off. The arena currently serves as the anchor point for a cluster of bars, restaurants and retail stores surrounding it, but it remains a pain for people to get to. It’s a good arena with a good NHL team, but it’s in a bad location in a hot southern state where ice is normally only found in a glass. Add to that this NHL lockout, and whatever progress they’ve made with their recent winning ways will have slipped away during this period of inactivity.

The Glendale vote on Tuesday is expected to come down to a single swing vote, and even if it passes, the Goldwater Institute will likely sue on the grounds that the city is subsidizing a private business venture.

All sense suggests the NHL should pull up stakes and move to a more viable market like Quebec City or southern Ontario.

But this thing stopped making sense years ago.

Mike Milbury, hockey’s shoe-wielding bandit

October 18, 2012 1 comment

Brandon Prust vs Milan Lucic

Hockey and fighting – big deal, right? Put a bunch of angry Canadians on skates and a fight is bound to break out. Above you’ll see New York’s Brandon Prust about to get filled in by one of the meanest NHLers around these days, Milan Lucic. That happened last season, and there will be more of that when the NHL resumes. It happens all the time. But it’s never happened like this.

The spark:

On December 23, 1979, the Boston Bruins were at Madison Square Garden to take on the New York Rangers. The Bruins beat the Rangers 4-3, but because they’d had so much fun doing it, they decided they wanted to continue after the buzzer. The Boston players started a typical post-game melee that soon became anything but typical when a fan decided to get involved.

Rangers fan John Kaptain rolled up his program, leaned over the low glass and swatted at Bruins tough guy Stan Jonathan, cutting him under the eye. Then, in Jonathan’s words, “I put my stick up to protect myself, and he just took it, and I can’t be hitting no fan with a stick, really, eh, so I just let him take it.”

Yes, the man is Canadian.

The madness:

That was enough for Boston’s Terry O’Reilly. He climbed into the stands and the rest of the Bruins followed him, because they couldn’t leave their teammate at the mercy of a scared-shitless spectator with a hockey stick. O’Reilly grabbed Kaptain but others in the crowd hauled him off. Soon the whole Bruins team was beating up the crowd at Madison Square Garden.

Amid the chaos, the fan with the deadly program ran like hell, but he didn’t get away.

Boston defenceman Mike Milbury was among the Bruins climbing the glass, and he managed to chase down Kaptain. Milbury knocked Kaptain down, ripped off Kaptain’s shoe and started beating him with it while I security guard tried to stop him.

Bush shoe throw

He may have inspired this.

Security swarmed Milbury, but not before he got in a few good whacks.

Mike Milbury beats a fan with his own shoe

He’s under there. Somewhere.

The aftermath:

The Bruins were separated from the fans and put on their team bus. They needed a mounted police escort to get away from the arena because fans were trying to tip the bus.

Mr. Burns

“Are you saying ‘Booo’ or ‘Bruuu-ins’?”

Milbury’s post-playing career has been as highlight-filled as his shoe-beating heyday. As a general manager in the early 2000s, he led the New York Islanders to their second-worst regular season winning percentage in the franchise’s 30-year history, then salted the earth by trading away future stars Roberto Luongo and Zdeno Chara, among others, before getting canned twelve years too late. He is now (surprise) a broadcaster for ESPN and CBC. But he hasn’t gone soft; he’ll still drop the gloves on any punk ass twelve-year old dumb enough to mess with him.

Mike Milbury laughing

Class act, all the way.