NHL labour dispute ignores the source of its success

"...the thing I dislike about the NHL is that it’s no longer about the sport."

I love hockey, that’s a given. I love the atmosphere in the rink when the novice players take to the ice full of exuberance even though they’re short on skill. I also love junior hockey for its competitiveness and showcase for homegrown talent.

But I’m gradually beginning to dislike what is supposed to be the elite level of the sport. In fact, the thing I dislike about the NHL is that it’s no longer about the sport.

Another looming labour dispute is shinning a light on the reasons not to be a fan of the NHL.

The often-used quip, “billionaires fighting with millionaires,” only further illustrates the gap between the NHL and its fan base.

Yet in that Ivory Tower called the NHL, there is no hint from the powers that be that there’s a connection with the real world.

The owners are calling for more contract concessions while the players claim they’ve given up enough in the previous labour negotiations.

Okay I’ll admit that does sound like many real-world labour disputes but that’s the only similarity unless the federal government steps in and forces the players back to work.

In the meantime, both sides appear to believe the fans will be back regardless of how long they stay out.

I really wish they’re wrong on that guess but sadly they’re probably right.

As a sports fans we love to see the best perform. That’s why when Tiger Woods is on the golf course people stop and watch. When the Olympics bring the best together in one city, sports fans take note. If it’s the final of the world championship marble contest, I’ll take a minute to see how it plays out. But when the best of any sport gets sidetracked by money and squabbles, it steals away from the entire allure of the elite performances.

Ironically, Tuesday night TSN began replaying the 1987 Canada Cup in honour of the 25th anniversary of the series. Game 1 caught my attention simply because the lineup, on both sides, features future Hall of Fame players who were known for their success on the ice not for their big contracts, endorsements, who they date or what they tweeted last week.

Sure the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were paid handsomely but one has to wonder why labour issues weren’t a concern then.

I’m not the only hockey fan in our office yet we all agree if we could make our current wage, which barely covers an NHL player’s phone bill, playing a sport we would jump at the opportunity.

We know that even now, there are professional football players in the CFL who need an off-season job just to help pay the bills. The average salary in that league is around $80,000 but some are paid the minimum $30,000.

Imagine how they must cringe when they read about players with million-dollar salaries and billionaire owners squabbling over how to slice the money pie.

I remember in high school in Ottawa, there were teachers who were also members of the Ottawa Roughriders. Hall of Fame quarterback Russ Jackson was a principal at an Ottawa high school.

Hard to imagine Tyler Seguin, the 20-year-old Boston Bruin who signed a $34-million contract this week, preparing school assignments during the off season.

The recent multi-million dollar signings of a variety of young players only muddies the waters further. On one hand owners are crying poor yet on the other hand they’re handing out an unprecedented number of long contracts.

Here’s a league that refuses to admit when it’s wrong even when looking in the mirror.

It continues to prop up floundering franchises while ignoring the clamour for teams in Canada. Even though Canadian billionaires step up with bucket-loads of money, the league prefers to use its own money to keep a franchise in a city that is luke-warm in its support at best.

A hockey-mad province like Quebec or Ontario could easily support another NHL franchise but for some unknown reason, the league wants to have a franchise in Phoenix or two in Florida.

So if there is even one hint of a brain synapse at the NHL bargaining table, there will be some thought given to the fans.

The first thing that should come out of the mouth of commissioner Gary Bettman is that the league is cutting ticket prices for the season as a thank you to fans for putting up with this crap once again.

It would be the first league to acknowledge that it’s the fans that have enabled the owners and players to get rich. And, ultimately, created the beast that is currently rearing its ugly head.

The best way to tell the fans that the league still depends on them is to open the doors wide. Free exhibition games, discounted regular-season tickets and more community-involvement from the players.

Those could be the first small steps in mending the divide that grows daily between the NHL and its fan base.

Will any of those things ever happen? I think there’s a better chance of seeing Tyler Seguin teaching Grade 9 geography.

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