NHL Lockout 2012: An Argument for Contraction
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Undoubtedly, hockey fans thought back to this adage in 2004: For the second time under Gary Bettman the league suffered a work stoppage.
When all seemed glitzy and good following the '04-'05 lost season, Roger Daltrey’s belted chorus “We won’t get fooled again” was apropos.
Fast forward seven years and we are staring another lockout in the face. Blame Bettman all you want- indeed all of this has transpired under his watch- but there is a greater problem underlying the Collective Bargaining Agreements.
When the league locked out in 2004 the main issue (and there were plenty) was the growing gap between the haves and the have nots. The rich teams like the Rangers, Flyers, Red Wings, and Avalanche passed out huge contracts, creating an oligopoly in free agency. Meanwhile, the small market and Canadian teams, which are one in the same in some places, could not compete in a league where tens of millions of dollars were being thrown at players.
The neutral zone trap and an epidemic of obstruction play weakened the on-ice product, but the NHL is first and foremost a business. In businesses, money takes precedent.
In June of '05, a new league emerged from the rubble of the disaster, complete with a shootout, stripped of a red line, and, most importantly, fiscally held in check by a strict salary cap.
New rules dominated the early conversation. A crack down on hooking, clutching, and grabbing rendered the game a battle of power plays. Trapezoid entered hockey fans’ lexicon for the first time since ninth grade geometry. But the league soon flourished behind young stars and resurgent franchises. The salary cap succeeded in leveling the financial playing field.
By 2012 everything seemed good in the hockey world. While the NBA and NFL struggled through work stoppages of their own, the NHL was inking a long term, lucrative TV deal with NBC. HBO’s “24/7: Road to the Winter Classic” exposed the game to a wider fan base.
For the first time in history every playoff game was broadcasted live across NBC’s collection of networks. They still showed “To Catch a Predator,” only this time it was Pavel Datsyuk pick-pocketing an oblivious Roman Josi.
With both the New York and Los Angeles markets playing serious roles in the postseason, it looked as if the NHL could not be happier.
The impending lockout was a distant thought.
Now September 15 is less than three weeks away and it looks more and more likely that we should bunker down for the third work stoppage under Commissioner Bettman’s watch, Daltrey’s words be damned.
The salary cap served it purpose for several seasons before General Managers started to sign players to front-loaded, long term deals that circumvented the hard cap. The teams at the top thrived financially while teams at the bottom struggled to reach the cap floor. The Florida Panthers and their like had to piece together discarded parts and forgotten veterans in order to compete.
These Frankenstein’s Monsters of teams walk the precarious fine line between pity and punch line.
Gary Bettman needs to address a hard truth, and one that has undermined the league for years: The NHL cannot support thirty franchises.
The Commissioner should, but won’t, consider the dreaded “C” word.
Contraction brings with it a laundry list of problems, at the top of which are incensed fan bases whose teams have just been axed. The NHL Player’s Association would fight the sudden loss of employment to the end. In reality, contraction is not an option.
However, a smaller league would mean fewer roster spots- bad for the players but tremendous for the fans who would witness a greater concentration of talent. Moreover, teams would be less inclined to fill out their depth charts with enforcers whose skills are limited to pugilism.
The Jody Shelleys of the world would be weeded out in favor of skilled players who can compete in a faster, more competitive league. Brian Burke might lament the change, but frankly his ideology has long grown obsolete.
A league with fewer goons might just reduce the concussion problem that has plagued the NHL in recent seasons as well.
In short, the long term benefits of contraction outweigh the short-term furor that such a policy would ignite.
Three work stoppages in less than twenty years is not an anomaly- it is a pattern. If the league does not make drastic changes, who’s to say we won’t be facing another lock out when this upcoming deal runs out years from now?
Hockey in non-traditional areas was a bold experiment. Sometimes, as any scientist will tell you, experiments fail.
It’s time for the league to cut its losses- and a few franchises as well.