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The Lockout: You started it, but someone else will end it

By Tom

As we continue with the drama that is the National Hockey League’s lockout of its players, I’d like to start with an apology.  I greatly tried to avoid getting down deep in the weeds to comment upon every single day of collective bargaining agreement talks.  I didn’t want to have your (and my) blood pressure rise and fall with every utterance from each of the negotiators.  I really was trying with my last post to take a “look at the forest, not the trees” approach.

Four days of negotiations – exceptionally quiet and presumably productive talks at that  - last week led me to start thinking that perhaps the NHL and the NHL Players Association finally were getting somewhere.  Optimism crept in. Then the NHLPA’s Executive Director let a summary memo (one not necessarily flattering to all sides) out to the media…and Sunday’s talks about player contract issues apparently went nowhere fast.  Cue up the fan frustration and, for some, despair at the prospects of a lost season.

Thus, my best laid plans went awry.  I thought that a full work week of talks was the trigger for a deal to get done.  It clearly wasn’t.  Sigh.

In a strange way, however, the lesson learned (once again) from the past week reinforces something that I’ve been meaning to revisit.  And that is my ever-strengthening opinion that while it could be argued that the NHL’s owners caused the lockout (they locked the players out…it’s not a players’ strike here) or that the NHLPA’s apparent stalling for over a year has been a huge drag on the negotiations, I don’t think that either the NHL or NHLPA will “end” the lockout on their own.

Given their behavior, I feel that both sides want to “win” in the next CBA.  A productive negotiation would yield a “win-win” where dialogue, combined with even-handed give-and-take, where both sides could go back to their constituencies and say, “We had to give a little on this front, but look what we got in return.”  In this model, noone is entirely satisfied or dissatisfied.  But, again, it doesn’t look from this observer’s position that the parties are looking to direct the talks in that direction.  And without the spirit of compromise, you’re looking at a stalemate until the dynamic changes.

Note the caveat there: “…until the dynamic changes.”  What can change a dynamic?  It can be a number of things, but the one I’ve been thinking most likely for a while is the many external parties with vested interests in the outcome.  Some examples:

- The television conglomerate that is struggling to fill its anticipated blocks of NHL programming. (Never mind the regional television partners…)

- The agents who aren’t receiving their commissions because, well, there isn’t any money coming in from which one would draw a commission.

- The sponsors who the NHL has kept in the loop from the outset and, at least in the case of Molson/Coors, is looking to recoup some of their lockout-inspired losses.

Note that I am not including consumer ticket holders, season ticket holders and otherwise.  While the ticket-buying public likely has the largest financial impact on the league, I’ll suggest that they are too decentralized (and thus disorganized) to impact the league.  Plus, NHL fans have historically been very forgiving of past labor actions.

Take everything together, and here’s my best guess about what will happen:  The television and sponsorship investors someday will put their collective foot down, and the deal will get done reasonably soon thereafter.

Then again, I’ve thought that for a while now.  I just can’t see another realistic way for this to end.

What do you think?

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