WINNIPEG — Here in Canada, the home of hockey and all things winter, most of us come to understand early in life not to spin your tires when you’re stuck in the snow. The more you spin, the worse it gets.
The NHL seems to get this. The NHLPA is still learning.
The league has spent almost no time lobbing angry bon mots at the other side. The union, however, from players and agents on Twitter to leader Donald Fehr in his media statements, have done so much finger pointing it’s begun to make them look guilty.
The public clearly sided with players at one point but those days are done. Both sides are in the crosshairs of blame and open to the scorn of the damaged third party known as the fans.
Hockey fans no longer care to hear the spin from one side or another. Not after Thursday’s announcement that the first block of NHL games has been cancelled. The time for politicking has passed. Both sides have lost face in the eyes of the fans.
The NHLPA made a misstep on Thursday when executive director Fehr elected not to soothe fans but instead took the tack of swiping at the owners.
Fehr’s salvo served only to raise the ire of fans missing their game. It added insult to the injury of having their game taken away.
“The decision to cancel the first two weeks of the NHL season is the unilateral choice of the NHL owners,” Fehr said. “If the owners truly cared about the game and the fans, they would lift the lockout and allow the season to begin on time while negotiations continue. A lockout should be the last resort in bargaining, not the strategy of first resort. For nearly 20 years, the owners have elected to lock-out the players in an effort to secure massive concessions. Nevertheless, the players remain committed to playing hockey while the parties work to reach a deal that is fair for both sides. We hope we will soon have a willing negotiating partner.”
The suggestion that this is an owner’s lockout makes the presumption hockey fans are all stupid and not sophisticated enough to understand the complexities of big business and labour negotiations.
Most of us drones work for large companies and know full well the demands on both ownership and labour. We live it every day. And not from the comfort of first-class passage and security of a seven-figure bank account.
Yes, the owners imposed the lockout but the players are willing participants. Don’t play the victim. It’s disingenuous and demeaning.
Both sides want their way. That’s fine. Nobody begrudges them the right to fight for their desires. But hockey fans have been down this road before. They can’t be convinced one side is less culpable than the other.
They’re too savvy for such sleight of hand.
Assessing blame is a waste of their time. Hockey fans don’t care who gets what or how they do it. They want to turn their TVs on and see Penguins fighting Jets and drive to arenas and pull on jerseys that say Canadiens or Blackhawks.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is smart enough to know he can’t help himself so he’s mostly stayed away from microphones and podiums. On Thursday the league deftly turned to deputy commissioner Bill Daly for its statement. Daly is nowhere near the lightning rod Bettman has become and fans see him as a moderate.
Daly’s statement on the cancellation of games stayed away from placing fault.
“We were extremely disappointed to have to make (Thursday’s) announcement,” wrote Daly. “The game deserves better, the fans deserve better and the people who derive income from their connection to the NHL deserve better. We remain committed to doing everything in our power to forge an agreement that is fair to the players, fair to the teams and good for our fans.
“This is not about ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ a negotiation. This is about finding a solution that preserves the long-term health and stability of the league and the game. We are committed to getting this done.”
Apologetic and consoling — if not a touch patronizing. Daly mostly hit all the right notes. The league does in fact want to win this negotiation. So do the players. Otherwise this would be over and I’d be writing about a Jets’ winning streak or slump.
The NHL knows this stoppage is as much its fault as it is the players. They know they are guilty of greed and mismanagement. They’re also smart enough not to pretend they’re absolved of any blame and know better than to suggest it.
The union can cling to the concept they don’t share in this but no one is listening. With the cancellation of games, such a notion is irrelevant.
People just want their hockey back. Anything else is irritating noise.
Here in Hockeyland the snow is deep after just two weeks of lockout cold. The old rear-wheel drive Pontiac is stuck and spinning. Bettman and Fehr are in the front seat arguing over the radio station with the accelerator pinned to the floor.
A nation of hockey fans are standing behind the car willing to push with all their might but can’t get to the bumper through the choking exhaust fumes and flying slush.
Stop the spinning. It’s getting us nowhere fast.
» Gary Lawless is a Winnipeg Free Press sports writer.
» Republished from the Free Press print edition
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 6, 2012