I have figured out why Gary Bettman is so loathed by hockey fans.
Yes, yes — it’s three lockouts in 18 years. But there’s something deeper.
Every hockey fan that has reached the age of reason understands why players who recently signed contracts that go beyond 2020 are structuring those deals to minimize losses during a potential lockout. It’s because Bettman has orchestrated three lockouts in 18 years. This isn’t some sort of next-level chess-master strategy by agents and players. Everyone gets it.
So earlier this week, when Bettman was asked about players protecting themselves for a potential 2020 lockout, he gave the only answer he could.
Gary Bettman, on players building protection into contracts for 2020 lockout: "Why are they thinking that? We haven't had any discussions."
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) November 14, 2016
That was Monday. That statement alone is evidence that Bettman doesn’t think much of the average fan’s intelligence. And that’s fine. Fans have come back in waves after all three lockouts, so he’s earned the right to condescend. I hate to side with Bettman, but there’s a reason he feels like he can get away with that.
But two days later, word leaked that the NHL was making the NHLPA an offer way in advance of the current CBA’s potential expiration date. If the players are willing to choose against opting out of the CBA in 2020 and instead let it run through 2025, the NHL will sign off on allowing the players to participate in the 2018 Olympics.
When Bettman talks, why does anyone repeat it? It’s not that he always lies or plays dumb, but he does it enough that I don’t understand why anyone takes what he says at face value. Think about some of the things he’s said in recent years.
Why would players be worried about a lockout? Why would fans want a website that has player salaries? Who cares about advanced statistics? Of course the Atlanta Thrashers aren’t moving to Winnipeg! Why would fans want to see the draft lottery drawing live? How is daily fantasy anything like gambling? The science is still out on concussions!
There’s no worse day on Twitter than the days in which Bettman is at the Stanley Cup Final or the All-Star Game or some major event, and every hockey writer transcribes and tweets everything he says without vetting it or considering the truthfulness of the content. If the guy is going to pretend he doesn’t understand why players desire lockout protection, why are you going to believe literally anything else he tells you?
Which brings us back to the CBA extension for Olympics ploy.
— Bruce Bolton (@BruceDBolton) August 17, 2016
I worked at the NHL for nearly six years. I know a lot of people who worked at the NHL for a long time. I haven’t worked there in about three years, so it’s possible the culture has changed, but there’s one universal truth about the place, no matter your department or role: The NHL is all about taking advantage of your love of the sport. Sure, every sport and probably every company does this to an extent, but I don’t have experience with those, so I can’t speak to it. Maybe the employees at Office Max have their boundaries pushed because they love staplers. I have no idea. Love what you want.
But I’ve worked at other places and I’ve never had the envelope pushed the way it was at the NHL. It was the type of thing people in other departments would talk about. You get hired to do one thing, then two years later, you suddenly you’re doing 1.5 jobs or two jobs, and yet your paycheck and cubicle are exactly the same. Thanks for the extra responsibility, but doesn’t the company that brags about its “record revenue” all the time have a few more bucks for Kevin in events or Jessica in marketing? As adults, you can always say no to anything outside your job’s purview, of course, but there’s a fear that permeated that place like nothing I’ve experienced.
If you think that’s just my sour grapes… you’re damn right it is. I’m still annoyed that the league snagged 20 percent of my pay during a lockout the league wanted. But if you think it’s just me who feels that way, I hope you bump into a current or former NHL employee — or even a player that’s had a few beers — so you can run that previous paragraph past them and see if they agree with it. I won’t say every employee will have an experience that mirrored mine and the people I know, but I bet you’ll bat no worse than .500.
And that systemic issue seems to trickle down to the players. How else would you describe a league that has squeezed them three times in 18 years and is now trying to get them to push back the next negotiating window in exchange for the Olympics, the one thing every player dreams about almost as much as and, in some cases, more than a Stanley Cup? It’s a cheap, hollow publicity gesture and the type of thing a corporation like the NHL does when it wants to take advantage of how much someone loves the game.
Remember when the NHL was considering extending overtime for another five minutes? The players have a union, so of course they pushed back on it, but no one is immune from being hired to do one thing and being asked to do a little more for the same salary at the NHL.
This goes for fans, too. Don’t think when the owners are sitting around talking about lockouts that they don’t know you’ll be back. You returned after a full-season lockout, so they won’t hesitate to cut another season in half in a effort to get 0.05 percent more of the hockey-related revenue in 2020. They know you love it and know you’ll be there when the puck drops on Game 1 of 48.
This Olympic tradeoff is also designed to prey on fans for the forthcoming lockout Bettman is pretending won’t happen. You can wager good money on this: When the negotiations aren’t going well in 2020 and a frustrated Bettman is holding a press conference at the NHL offices in Manhattan, he will without question cite the fact the players turned down this offer to extend the CBA in 2016. And you, the fan, may say, “Yeah, I forgot about that. Those greedy players! Grrrr!”
I know it’s hard to feel bad for millionaires giving up part of their non-protected salaries during a fight for a sliver of billions of dollars, but the players are never the bad guys in an NHL lockout. Heck, if the players strike, they are still in the right. The owners are well aware of how good they have it, which is why they’re willing to extend the CBA right now. You should be encouraging the players to do whatever they can to extract every dollar possible from the people that have installed a system that pays Nikita Kucherov 70 percent of what he’s worth, even if he’s worth millions. If the players kill a season to nuke the salary cap or drop an atomic bomb into the restricted free agency structure, you should happily come back the following the season for them.
I’m beyond my breaking point with Bettman’s willful ignorance. It doesn’t do anything to build trust with fans and it definitely doesn’t help build trust with players, who roll their eyes even harder than us when he acts like lockout protection is a wacky idea 48 hours before trying to blackmail the players into extending the current, terrible CBA.
In a way, CBA negotiations began Wednesday. Hopefully they won’t extend through a canceled season, but you can’t blame the players if they do.