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Pawns in an Ugly Game

Posted By Matt Preston On Oct 11 2012 @ 5:22 pm In Boston Bruins | No Comments

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” said William Shakespeare. When it comes to the NHL, however, it seems we are really all just pawns.

Tonight, the Black-and-Gold faithful should be sitting down to watch the Boston Bruins open their 2012-2013 season against the Philadelphia Flyers. A year that was to be met with much anticipation after Boston’s disappointing end in 2011-2012 and the re-signing of many of the team’s younger core players this summer. Unfortunately, the only anticipation felt by not just Bruins fans, but hockey fans everywhere, is the seething anticipation for the end of a lockout that has already erased the pre-season and the first two weeks of the regular season.

A lockout that has seemingly no end in sight.

Just seven years after an entire season was lost to such shenanigans, those who do not lace up skates or sign those guys’ paycheck, but still devote their lives to the NHL are once again caught up as pawns in a vicious chess match of a labor dispute between the NHL Players Association and team owners. Yes, both sides will spew their rhetoric, such as that which came the other day from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, when he said, “The game deserves better, the fans deserve better and the people who derive income from their connection to the NHL derive better,” trying to convince the fans they matter, drawing the battle lines with their PR spin. How can those surrounding the game, though, feel like anything but collateral damage? Especially Bruins fans, when team owner Jeremy Jacobs is leading the charge for his brethren.

And this does not even take into account the folks who are employed by NHL franchises that have been laid off or had their hours and salaries cut as a result of the labor dispute.

If they really were “committed to getting this done,” as Daly went on to say, if they really did feel bad about the loss of the reported $1 million that is brought in by the local economies on an NHL game day, if the fans were not just an afterthought, would the two parties really be in just their third round of meetings since the September 15 deadline, a total of less than 10 days in the elapsed month, and discussing such frivolous things as ice conditions while far greater, economic issues – the heart of this labor dispute – are being ignored?

None of this, however, is new. Neither the frustration nor the facts presented above. It all has been very well documented since the Los Angeles Kings captured the Stanley Cup in June. What has been interesting to think about over the course of the past few days while this piece was in production, while thinking if there was anything that could ever happen that would prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again, was relating the NHL’s woes to the bigger picture of the rest of the world. Once again, the dreaded confluence of the World of Sports and the Real World.

Do we treat all other labor disputes with such vehemence and frustration?

Yes, the public is outraged by the NHL lockout. Justifiably so, but is this really different than any other labor dispute in any business? Is there anyone out there who does not think they are underpaid and would not mind seeing a bigger paycheck, regardless of who they are and what they do? Owners always want to cut costs to increase their profit margin. Employees always want a bigger piece of the pie, thinking if it not for them, there would be no profit.

Yes, it is a generalization. Yes, there are plenty of people out there who would take the hit in a labor dispute just to get things going again, much like the NHLPA did in 2004-2005, but thinking this way is not necessarily wrong, for all who are not diehard Marxists.

The difference is the public, in general, holds sports on a higher level than the masses. Because of the spotlight, the mythological status of sport, the amount of money being thrown around, they are put on a higher pedestal, from which a higher standard is expected. Is this fair? Should athletes and owners of professional sports teams have to play by a different set of rules? Maybe so, but the fairness of that lies in whether or not those who revolt are ready to hold themselves to a similar set of high standards.

“But fans can strike back! Stop going to games. Stop endorsing the product.” More popular rhetoric.

If the employees of JetBlue go on strike, we fly Southwest. If there is a lockout at UPS, we ship with FedEx. McDonald’s has Burger King, Zamboni has Olympia and the list goes on. When it comes to the NHL, however, to hockey on its highest level, there really is not another option. If there were, we would have been comfortable sitting the other day, enjoying the KHL game being broadcast live on ESPN, not discussing the differences in the level of play with the Winter Classic re-runs being shown on the NHL Network.

There are those who love the game of hockey and want to see it played at its peak. Hockey fans will come back. Sports fans always come back. Maybe because sports fans really are just pawns or maybe because of the joy they take in sport. Regardless of which it is, even if the fans turned their backs and the NHL fell, eventually another league would take its place and eventually that new league would be saddled with the same problems. The National Hockey League is an entertainment and service business that survives based on their customers and customer service. It is, however, still a business and businesses are meant to make money. There is even a chance there are certain aspects of the NHL as a business that warrant a work stoppage.

Unfortunately, it is not about right and wrong. In some ways both the NHLPA and NHL itself are both right and wrong, and, en mass, the rest of us are helpless to fix the situation, while they battle it out. As reasonable as the frustration and venom may be, it will get us nowhere. It will not change Capitalism. Patience is all that can get us through. Patience and hope that cooler minds will prevail, see the damage that is being done to the league and develop a true sense of urgency to get a new collective bargaining agreement done. Hope that all written above is just garbage and the masses are more than just pawns in this labor game and both the players and owners will do the one thing they can do to prove their loyalty to their fans is equal to that of the fans’ loyalty: Put ego aside, spend more time at the bargaining table than they have been, get things fixed, fixed properly and get a deal done.

Preferably sooner, rather than later.

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