Roundtable: Weighing in on the NHL Lockout

We are pleased to introduce the first Hockey in Society Roundtable, a new feature at Hockey in Society. Roundtables will present brief commentaries from Hockey in Society contributors on pressing or timely issues within hockey and its culture, with the aim of presenting a diverse range of critical viewpoints on the topic under discussion.

Simon Darnell – “Cartel Contradictions”

The current NHL lockout – like most labour disputes in professional sports – is so off-putting for the ways that it co-opts us into caring about a fight between the extraordinarily rich. This is ‘Billionaires vs. Millionaires,’ goes the familiar refrain, and the average fan is alienated given how impossible it is to relate to the stand-off.

Still, this doesn’t stop fans from trying to do just that. For example, if you read the comments posted on any e-story of the lockout over the past few weeks (I know, but I can’t help myself), you undoubtedly read something like this:

“Imagine if you owned a company and the employees took home 57% of the revenue. You wouldn’t stand for it!”

Followed shortly thereafter by something like:

“Yeah, well imagine if your boss gave you a raise and then demanded it back three months later!”

Applying real-world labour politics to the lockout in this way would seem to be a logical heuristic exercise, save for one important detail: The ‘real-world’ doesn’t apply here. In fact, the enduring legacy of the lockout should be to remind all of us 9-5ers of how dramatically far removed we are from the labour structures of professional hockey.

The NHL isn’t like the company or organization that any of us (outside of OPEC or the mob) work for; it’s a cartel. It benefits from a position of monopsony (i.e. a single buyer of the services of hockey players) to control the labour pool. (Before you get too worked up, yes, the KHL and the Swiss Elite League are important factors here, but they aren’t on par with the NHL. The basic terms of monopsony still apply).

The point is that professional sports, including the NHL and the others, have always been able to carve out a business structure for their games that benefit from rules not seen in other industries. One of the benefits of this state of exception is that it allows franchise owners as a group to flip between competition and collegiality, between fighting each other and banding together, and it’s this inconsistency that drives the NHL’s internet trolls to the point of apoplexy.

So when the Minnesota Wild signed Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to monster deals, they were competing against the other clubs and trying to win to improve their brand and bottom line. Makes good business sense. Yet, they always reserved the right to claim solidarity with other franchise owners a few months later and demand some of that money back, which, of course, also makes good business sense. Consistent? No. Logical? Not exactly? Profitable? Oh, yeah.

So let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that while we follow the lockout we are watching a higher-stakes, higher-profile version of the labour world that you and I live in. What we’re seeing is the fundamental contradictions and inconsistencies of professional sport as they ooze out through the cracks in the CBA. While both the owners and the players rely on our spending, that doesn’t mean they live in the same world that we do.

E. Martin Nolan: “A Broader Lesson”

I’ve taken this chance to read Net Worth. A thought keeps coming to mind: all the awards meant to honour excellence in the game – that pure thing, and I mean that sincerely – are named after a bunch of mean, ruthless, greedy lowlifes. Hey, let’s adorn the league’s best player with an award named after a guy who harassed any player who asked, “maybe don’t treat me like complete dirt, sir?” Where’s the Ted Lindsay award? [Ed. note: The Ted Lindsay Award does exist, but is awarded by the NHL Player’s Association, rather than the league itself.] So maybe that’s the NHL in a nutshell, but in reverse: instead of the players’ on-ice excellence covering up the owners’ (and arguably, now, the players’) off-ice rottenness, you have on-ice excellence awarded in the name of brutal mini-dictators (these dudes were mean, I mean, how could you live with yourself after doing Gordie Howe like that?). The fact that those names still grace spaces of high honour should tell us something about the league’s priorities (who’s honoured more: Art Ross, or the guy who wins the Art Ross trophy? One of them gets their named mentioned every year).

By extension, this bias toward the owners’ must also say something bigger. If we—and I thoroughly include my pro-sports-loving-self in that ‘we’—keep gobbling up this product as if there is no seedy, or at least ruthlessly pragmatic, underside to it, what other feats of cognitive dissonance are we capable of? Is the game of our public discourse covering up the levers of power in the same way? Of course it is. But there might be hope in this too. Hockey fans know that what they’re talking about is a game, and that while they care, they don’t buy in as if it were real life. Many people treat politics the same way, but many think that game is real, and so they take it too seriously, which actually damages the outcome. It would be nice to see the assumed skepticism fans show to the lockout transferred more thoroughly to politics. In “Risking Ralph Ellison,” Jason Puskar claims that Ellison’s hero: “the Invisible Man, if he is to keep his shirt, will have to stop believing in the game and assume the ironic detachment that would allow him to start playing it instead.”[1] The game the Invisible Man plays isn’t much different than what exists today (the game is culture and politics) and maybe the lockout can serve to remind us of that.  And give us more time to read.

Courtney Szto – “Losing a Familiar Punctuation to Everyday Life”

Wanna know how I feel about the lockout? I would tell you but why re-write that which has already been written:

At another level of appeal, the cycles of the fan’s year – the training camps, the early part of the season, the struggles for playoff positions, and finally the playoffs themselves – provide a familiar punctuation to everyday life.  These rhythms have a seeming permanence that comes from their loose approximation of the seasons; but in a sport like hockey each season also seems to correspond to a particular stage in a serial narrative that builds towards an annual climax and conclusion.  Moreover, with each new sports season there is the prospect of renewal – new hope, for example, that the Maple Leafs or the Canucks will finally have a successful season.  In addition, the repetitive rhythms of sporting seasons lend themselves to a familiarity of characters and plots, not unlike those of favourite melodramas. For many fans it is precisely the familiarity of the characters and the ways they respond that has helped to make Hockey Night in Canada a Saturday-night family ritual. [2]

The lockout, as other HIS writers have discussed, affects the fans the most (in an intangible fashion) and yet we are more than willing to let it back into our lives when it has decided it is good and ready because it is not one aspect of our lives that can be compartmentalized; rather, it is so intricately interwoven into our beings that a lockout, at least for me personally, makes me feel less whole in some way.  As Gruneau and Whitson articulate so well – the rhythm to my life is off, my days have no punctuation and the lockout has stolen my hope.  The country that is known for postponing national news for a hockey game (see Gruneau & Whitson, 1993) is also the one that loses a chunk of its identity during a lockout.  So NHL & NHLPA, I could care less about your revenue sharing plans (or lack thereof) because you all make too much money anyways. What I do care about are the two-way players, the journeymen, and those who aren’t fortunate enough to get picked up by a European or Russian club.  What I care about are player safety and player pensions.  Oh and to the player who said on video that playing in front of empty stadiums would get pretty boring – I do it every week and love it.  Please get over yourselves.

 Sunil Agnihotri: “Potential Long-term Implications for Fans”

I could care less about the NHL lockout. And I say this as a huge hockey fan, who can’t go a day without thinking/reading/writing about the game. But it becomes exhausting hearing the absolute bullshit that comes out from both sides during these labor negotiations. Add to the fact that here in Edmonton, we have to watch the proposed downtown arena debate drag on, and you can understand why I might be feeling a little annoyed. In the mean time, there’s plenty to do in Edmonton and plenty of sports to follow. There’s the defending WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings, as well as the Oklahoma City Barons, the Oilers’ AHL affiliate, that will feature Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Magnus Paajarvi this season.

Dealing with the lockout hasn’t been tough. Instead of reading about meetings and players moving to Europe, I’ve spent more time looking into the potential long-term implications of this ordeal, and what it could mean to fans.

For one, the communication technology available today has altered how the narrative of the labor negotiations has played out. The current tools and applications such as Wikipedia and Twitter have given everyone the ability  to contribute to the historical records pertaining to the current negotiations. This wasn’t available during the last lockout in 2005, as social media applications were still in its infancy, so it’ll be interesting to see how this historical record will be used during the next NHL lockout.

Second, the relationship and norms the NHL (including the owners and players) has with its fans has been interesting to examine. This lockout has really turned its fans into financial statistics as the economics of the game are brought forward. Whereas the last lockout, at least to me, was about providing a level playing field for all teams for the benefit of fans, the 2012 lockout is more about how to split the revenue between owners and players. The norms are changing here, and I really don’t see how the patronization of fans by the NHL and its players is going to be reversed.

Matt Ventresca: “Further Entrenching NHL’s Monopoly on Professional Hockey”

With the NHL lockout being more than two weeks old, there has been no shortage of commentary and reaction from players, journalists, fans and league management. It has been pretty disappointing, I must say, that much of the discussion has fallen into the stale discourse that reduces the complexities of sports labour issues to a “showdown” (to borrow from our friends at TSN) between greedy players and even greedier owners. A quick visit to NHL Memes shows these ideas in action – the erroneous mislabelling of the lockout as a “strike,” the construction of a betrayed and deceived fan base, the over-the-top vilification of Gary Bettman (and to a lesser extent Donald Fehr) are all represented there. If seemingly clear cut scapegoats and victims can be constructed through the (sometimes) clever combination of image and text, imagine what can be accomplished through the almost endless amount of analysis and speculation that has accompanied the lockout thus far. It has been quite refreshing, however, to see some commentary that has recognized how complicated these negotiations can be and considered the historical context from which the lockout emerges. Without rehashing some of the arguments that have been presented in other forums (in print and online), I agree that more attention needs to be paid to how the lockout affects the labourers that ultimately work to produce the spectacle we’ve come to know as NHL hockey and how the NHL fits into the complex history of labour relations across all professional sports.

I’d like to add to the sea of opinion that the lockout has generated by pointing out that there may be something ironic going on here. My thinking goes something like this: for most other businesses, failure to provide a quality product (or any product at all) would threaten the company’s market share and drive consumers to the firm’s competitors. Yet it appears that in the case of the current NHL lockout, something quite different is occurring. Instead of undermining the NHL’s stranglehold on the imaginations of hockey fans across North America, the lack of an NHL season has in many ways served to further entrench the league’s monopoly on professional hockey. Yes, attendance will undoubtedly rise incrementally for AHL and CHL teams if the NHL season were to be cancelled, but the number of times I’ve heard someone lament that there may be no “hockey season” this year leads me to believe that, for many fans, the lockout has failed to shake the NHL’s status as the planet’s gold standard for hockey. Indeed, there will be thousands of “hockey seasons” this winter, but there is only one that really matters in the hearts of many NHL fans (devoted and casual alike) and carries with it the media presence and marketing clout of the NHL. With no true competitor to challenge the league’s supremacy, we’re left at the mercy of these negotiations and with the makings of a classic “absence makes the heart grow fonder” scenario. Of course, there is always the possibility that the demand for major league hockey may disappear altogether; but for a lot of us (especially in Canada), it’s hard not to let the feelings of bitterness and betrayal dissipate once the puck drops because we literally have few other places to see the calibre of hockey that we’ve become accustomed to. Thus, we can’t help but rekindle our romance with the NHL because, much like in 2005, that familiar feeling may be impossible to resist.

Mark Norman: “Looking Beyond the Owners, Players, and Fans”

There are compelling reasons for hockey fans to care about this lockout for reasons beyond the lack of an NHL season, many of which are touched upon in the previous comments. One area that has received relatively limited attention has nothing to do with incredibly rich players, ludicrously rich owners, or fans of varying socioeconomic backgrounds – and that is the countless workers in North America who are affected adversely by this lockout. Yes, the NHL owners will not be taking in box office receipts and NHL players will take home no, or severely reduced in most cases of players playing in Europe, pay. But there are many, many other people whose livelihood depends on NHL hockey who will be impacted by this lockout.

Adam Proteau had an excellent article in a recent edition of The Hockey News (Sept. 17, 2012) entitled “Guilty of Negligence,” which discussed the various people who will lose out as a result of the lockout. Included in Proteau’s consideration are servers and bartenders at sports bars, parking lot attendants at or near hockey arenas, and arena workers such as ticket-takers or concession stand employees – who Proteau calls “the true victims of the lockout.” NHL team staff are also included in this group: the Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators have already laid off staff or reduced their hours.

Proteau also discusses an intriguing group who will be hurt be the lockout: fringe players in NHL feeder leagues, such as the American Hockey League and the East Coast Hockey League. As NHL teams send their young players to the AHL for the lockout (for example, the Edmonton Oilers have sent NHL stars such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle to their AHL affiliate), such fringe players get knocked down the pecking order and some will end up out of a job. Similar situations may transpire in Europe, as NHL players take their talents to the Kontinental Hockey League, Swedish Elite League, or Swiss League.

Proteau’s argument is certainly compelling on a human interest level – particularly one that so markedly punishes the most vulnerable in this situation (it is hard to imagine any owners or many players suffering substantially as a result of a lockout, even one that last a full season). It also points to the ways in which NHL hockey is enmeshed in much broader political and economic systems and how a seemingly isolated event (i.e. the “showdown” between owners and players) has societal ripples far beyond its immediate focus. Most NHL fans probably just want to see a return to hockey and do not care about the lockout much outside of this view. It would behoove them, however, to consider the broader ramifications of the NHL lockout and the sociopolitical power imbalances that it reflects and exacerbates.

[Ed. note: After writing this piece, I came across another good article about the victims of the lockout by Brandon Worley of Defending Big D. I recommend checking it out and giving it a read.]

[1] Jason Puskar, (2009), “Risking Ralph Ellison,” Deadalus 138(2), 83-93.

[2] Richard Gruneau & David Whitson (1993), Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities and Cultural Politics, p.216.

One thought on “Roundtable: Weighing in on the NHL Lockout

  1. Pingback: US Election: Hockey for Votes « Alvin Ma's Blog

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