Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Trees Will Burn

By: Mike "BCMike" Fraser

Edited By: Mike "The Deuce" Bailey

I know what you’re thinking; Where the hell have you been?

Well dear reader, I’ve been wallowing in the tar pit of NHL fan despondency. You see, since the Jets were unceremoniously ousted from the play-off race last season, I fell into a post season funk, and then into a full on lock-out depression. As grey clouds grew dark and later turned into a maelstrom of recriminations, lies, and bitterness, I helplessly watched the league start the process of tearing itself apart. Writing about the lockout seemed pointless and writing about anything else involving the NHL seemed foolish. So I watched.

As I watched, I read the expressions of angst and fear from fans in all corners of the NHL nation. With every passing day optimism has been replaced by bitterness and in some places a callous indifference that will in effect end hockey in those markets when or if the NHL resumes play. Again a wordy blog spraying frustration on the page seemed unnecessary, but now as we hurtle towards the end game a new fear has crept into my reasoning, a fear that even the most hardened sports hack dare not entertain. What if we don’t make it out alive?

As a Canadian I’m acutely familiar with the life cycles of our great forests. Tree’s take root, multiply, overcrowd the forest and then during the course of time a lightning strike ignites tinder and the forest burns. The ash fertilizes the soil and trees take root once again. It’s an incredibly violent process towards the end as the forest decimates itself and its inhabitants with fires hot enough to level everything in their wake. It’s a metaphor that NHL fans should heed.

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in the run up to the latest of NHL labour disaster, it’s that the league itself is broken economically. As per Forbes (whose numbers I don’t necessarily trust) and others, three quarters of the leagues revenues are generated by three teams: Toronto, New York, and Montreal. Clubs in the middle of the pack either tread water, or manage to make a couple of bucks depending on if they make playoff revenue. Even the much ballyhooed Canadian clubs (excluding Toronto and Montreal) make modest profits at best. This in itself would seem to be a troubling model with so much revenue concentrated in so few markets, but then on top of everything else we have to consider the weak sisters of the great expansion.

The bottom tier clubs of the great expansionist dream have effectively become immense swirling vortexes of red ink. The great expansion of the nineties was predicated on the doctrine; if we build it the national TV deal will come, but as we all know neither the crowds nor the major networks really bought into hockey as an all American sport. In most cases it was viewed as glorified roller derby and shoved to the backwater of the American consciousness. In order to keep the dream alive (and the commissioners job intact), intricate Ponzi schemes of municipal subsidies, NHL revenue sharing and shady ownership groups have been constructed. Sadly though as subsidies fall away, new owners have suddenly become hard to find and NHL revenue sharing is barely keeping the scheme intact. The forest that is the NHL has become overcrowded.

The state of the weak sisters is the elephant in the room at the NHL/NHLPA labour negotiations. Both know that as the great expansionist Ponzi scheme falls apart there’ll be less sponsor revenue to carve up, and fewer NHL jobs to go around. It puts the NHLPA in the precarious spot of wanting to call out the NHL on its failed Sunbelt projects while on the flip side also wanting to protect the jobs of the membership that they represent. So of course the NHPLA plays the only card that’s left in its deck. The NHLPA asserts that the league should expand the Revenue sharing program to prop up the weak sisters. Why not? It’s no skin off their teeth to try and keep the Ponzi scheme afloat with ownership money. The owners for their part are already chafed that they have to write big fat cheques to maintain the illusion that the NHL is a Trans North American major league (which it is not). And so the two are in an intractable dance fighting over a salary cap that is supposed to solve everyone’s problems by helping the weak sisters not lose AS much money as they have previously, which in turn will make the whole Ponzi scheme easier to prop up. You can almost feel the forest floor becoming tinder dry during this particularly hot summer.

There are however a group of owners, some mid-tier, some big market, that are quietly questioning the prevailing wisdom. They contend that their clubs do just fine, or at least well enough to survive under the current conditions. They also question the viability of seeking the elusive prestige of maintaining appearances in the so called non-traditional markets. With the weak sisters relocated or allowed to fail, the economics fall more into line (although not perfectly) and suddenly allowing a generous salary cap doesn’t seem so bad, especially if it maintains labour peace.

Unfortunately this group remains on the outside fringes of the all-powerful NHL executive committee, which has fully and completely bought into the Bettman-McNall doctrine of the nineties, which concludes that they must become the next NBA and conquer the whole of the US. They are determined to keep the entire scheme afloat, because with just a few more years they feel hockey will finally “catch on” in places like Tampa Bay, Phoenix, and Columbus and on that day the major networks will open their vaults and start a bidding war for NHL rights. These are the same people that seriously considered placing a club in Las Vegas! The thunder clouds have definitely gathered and the first flashes of lightening have begun to spread across the sky as the NHL executive committee runs the league from their own alternate universe.

So as the storm rages, what lies ahead? My guess is that lightning will strike.

Bettman has been characterized as ego driven, however I believe he’s more driven by his misplaced faith in his failed designs for the NHL. He has convinced powerful people to hang in there, but the outcomes are not happening and sooner or later those people are going to demand a change. What better distraction than a labour war to keep the executive committee looking at the shiny thing over here while Bettman desperately tries to keep his vision for the league intact over there. Indeed he has a perfectly willing accomplice in the form of Donald Fehr who himself knows the real problems facing the league and would love nothing better than to force the owners to prop it up on their own dime while keeping more players on the union rolls.

The players of course are the unwitting rubes in our current drama. They’ve been losing money every second since the NHL regular season was supposed to start. With a limited earning shelf life they’re becoming desperate to see a resolution, but not so desperate as accept the leagues formula to “make whole” current contracts. They have capitulated to the fifty percent salary cap but insist on having contracts honored from the owners side of the revenue sheet. Their backs are now against the wall and they’ll ignite the fire when they choose the decertification option. Chaos will reign supreme as they try to decertify in five provinces and federally in the USA. They will also need to launch anti-trust suits in each of those jurisdictions. The flames will truly start to consume the forest as the process goes on into uncharted territory and the owners will suddenly realize that in an ironic twist of fate the NHLPA exists for their benefit more than anyone else’s.  Don Fehr will finally be able to add “broke a major pro sports league” to his resume, and the fire will rage.

I’m not really sure if the NHL will survive the inferno. The dissident NHL governors may form an executive coup d'etat, or the hardline Bettman cabal may continue to rule through the league’s demise. The players may break and succumb to the owner’s demands, or decertification may actually take hold and hockey will be governed by vastly different rules, but don’t think for one second it will be the bluff it was in the NFL and NBA. In the end after the flames have been extinguished, we may eventually see green shoots in the left over ash as a new league establishes itself or at least a new arrangement of the NHL. However this plays out, both sides will be sharing pieces of a much smaller revenue pie as the violent upheaval will have swept away the interest of the casual fan and shaken the fortitude of the die-hards. Only one thing is for sure: when the firestorm starts, the trees will burn and nothing will look the same afterwards.

UPDATE: I held back in publishing this Blog for five days as it appeared the moderates among the NHL board of governors had been allowed to make one final push for labor peace. As I write this the players have chosen a different path, and have thrown a match on the forest floor.

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