A winter without pucks

Matt Kassian vs Darcy Hordichuk, 9/20/2011, AP Photo

Matt Kassian vs Darcy Hordichuk, 9/20/2011, AP Photo

In a country with fading memories of the triumphs of unionism and their inherent power to better the economic conditions of working people, it’s interesting that the only remaining labor issues involve round black objects–Ding Dongs and hockey pucks. Actually, the reason pucks aren’t flying around hockey rinks might have something to do with the non-snack food kind of ding dongs–people like Gary Bettman, Jeremy Jacobs, and I’ll include Donald Fehr, although adding Fehr to this list is probably a knee-jerk response typical of the union-baiting set, because it’s so much easier to blame the “greedy athletes.” (Actually, here is a really good article by Charles Pierce in Grantland on Fehr, and the economics of the NHL lockout and in the course of reading, a really good primer on what American corporate sports is all about. Read to the end of the first paragraph, the bit about Mike Illitch, billionaire pizza magnate and how he has turned an $8 million investment in 1982 into an investment now valued at $346 million, whether the team plays or not.)

While I no longer self-identify as a hockey fan, let me state a few of my bona fides regarding America’s sixth most popular professional sport (residing somewhere south of NASCAR and pro wrestling).

1) second to baseball, hockey was my favorite sport, and primary winter sports activity until I was 12 and turned my attention to basketball. To this day, I still love lacing up the skates and getting out on a pond for some “shinny.”
2) our son, Mark, began playing for Casco Bay Youth Hockey at age eight and ended his hockey career skating defense for the Greely High Rangers. By my calculations, I stood/sat in arenas upwards of 1,000 hours over that frozen decade of my life; think working in a meat locker for 25 weeks and you’ll start to get the picture.
3) Mark and I were regular attendees at Maine Mariner/Portland Pirates games between 1991-92 and 1999-2000.
4) I once built and maintained a 85 X 50 sheet of ice in our yard when Mark was 8 and 9 so he could enhance his hockey skills. Even back then, milder winters made this two-year effort an exercise in futility. You haven’t experienced winter frustration until you spend a week being out ‘til midnight, flooding your rink, and as soon as you get a nice sheet of ice, three days of 45 degree weather and rain undo it all.
5) I’ve always thought hockey players were a cut above other professional athletes due to their genuineness, toughness, and working-class pedigree (i.e., they’re mostly small-town Canadians).

While the NBA and the Boston Celtics now garner the lion’s share of my winter sports attention, I’ve been known to watch some Bruins’ hockey from time to time since switching my allegiance back to basketball in 2005. In fact, like any New Englander with a trace of hockey in their blood, I watched a bunch of hockey during April and May during the “Big, Bad, Bruins” run to the Cup two years ago.

I mentioned how the NHL lacks the cred of MLB, the NFL, the NBA, and possibly even, pro lacrosse. Actually, in the league’s original six cities–four of them located in the U.S.–fans care about their team and the health of the sport. You could also add Canadian outposts like Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Vancouver, although the British Columbia metro area is vastly different culturally than the other three cities. Across the rest of the NHL landscape, people have moved on to watching something other than hockey and won’t be coming back soon, if at all. Actually, in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, even the most casual fan is more fired up about striking a deal than the most rabid fan of professional hockey in Tampa Bay, or Nashville. But that’s a post about Canadian weirdness and those hard to fathom cultural differences with our neighbors to the frozen north.

This all seems to be lost on Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL, owners like the Bruins’ Jeremy Jacobs, and a handful of other hardliners, and possibly the players, although I’m much less tempted to blame them or even Fehr in this debacle.

If your interest is already flagging and you’re contemplating bailing, at least read Greg Wyshynski’s (now there’s a great hockey name for a player toiling in Buffalo or Chicago) excellent tongue-in-cheek take on the lockout before going back to surfing porn sites. If your are a hardcore fan (of hockey, not porn), then Wyshynski over at Puck Daddy should be a regular read.

For longtime fans of the Boston Bruins, owner Jeremy Jacobs has never elicited warm thoughts and feelings from them. If not for the recent end to the Stanley Cup drought in Boston, Jacobs might still be the most hated czar of any of the Boston professional sports fiefdoms. Winning has tempered that enmity a bit, but if Wyshynski is accurate, then that goodwill may already be dissipating, as he posits that Jacobs (with a small gaggle of other hardline owners) and Bettman are major reasons why fans don’t have any hockey thus far this winter. Wyshynski was quoted on WEEI’s Mut and Merloni progam as saying that Jacobs “is joined at the hip with Bettman,” and “has been one of the driving forces behind this thing, “ along with the guy who “might be pushing this thing over the cliff if they don’t get the deal they (the owners) are looking for.”

So why would a professional sports league that’s labored in obscurity for much of its 100-year history, which suddenly landed a national television contract and having just had its best five-year run in its history want to scrap the season? I mean, having to cancel the NHL Winter Classic–one of the league’s great innovations and incredibly popular features for even casual fans–is an absolute boner of a move.

Note: Actually, scrapping the season is only befuddling if you’re still operating under some misguided notion that businesses still operates to maximize profit and minimize debt. In a land where a corporate vulture like Mitt Romney (who made millions picking the carcasses of U.S. businesses clean of value via LBOs) can come within a whisker of the presidency should tell you all you need to know about the state of business in America.

Here’s what it all comes down to–rimshot please–money!! Now that’s a surprise, right? Greed among the workers (in this case, well-paid professionals), is an idiot’s response to any labor strife. It was a lockout, not a strike, which is often ignored in the stories taking the “greedy athletes” angle. When an employer locks you out, your one bargaining chip as a worker–your labor–is taken away, which makes “bargaining” an actual misnomer. It’s more akin to being held hostage. Greed has little, if anything to do with this lockout on the player’s side–the greed angle is actually tilting towards ownership. Actually, the NHL lockout is a snapshot of the strange economic landscape that workers now inhabit in post-industrial, post-union America.

It’s also quite interesting (and telling, I think) to observe based upon this article that the law firm representing Bettman and the NHL owners is Proskauer Rose. If you follow professional labor news, you’ll recognize them as the law firm employed by the NBA and David Stern, and other clients including the NFL. The writer of the article uses a Halloween (the movie) reference, calling the firm “the Michael Myers of labour fights,” as they keep popping up in every pro sports labor “sequel.”

Time is running out on the 2012-13 NHL season and all 1,000 of their fans are holding their breath to see if a deal gets done in the next few days. Having been through the same thing last year with the NBA, you have my sympathies, as well as hopes for a last minute rescue of your season.