Dysfunctional leaders hurt NHL

Last week, when the National Hockey League season was originally scheduled to begin, league brass announced that it had already forgone $100 million because of the player work stoppage.

Last week, when the National Hockey League season was originally scheduled to begin, league brass announced that it had already forgone $100 million because of the player work stoppage.

If this announcement was intended to elicit sympathy from hockey fans, it failed on every count.

The league statement skated over the inconvenient fact that the work stoppage was not a player strike but a lockout, precipitated by league owners to make more money for themselves.

It also exposed just how much revenue the teams generate from pre-season exhibition games and what a ripoff they are for their most loyal customers.

People attending pre-season games pay first-class prices for a second-rate spectacle.

It doesn’t really matter who wins or loses those games, and the play reflects that fact.

At their core, pre-season games matter most to fringe players who are struggling to make the team.

Star players who the fans really come to see don’t get much ice time in exhibition games, especially ones from the visiting teams.

Those are coaches’ decisions.

Why risk injuring a key player when there’s so little at stake?

All NHL players are professionals, so they don’t consciously dog it, but the final score is inconsequential in exhibition games and their effort reflects that fact.

For paying customers, however, exhibition games are treated like the real deal.

They pay full freight for everything from seats to programs and parking.

At the end of the regular season, for teams that make the playoffs, prices ramp up for games that really matter.

That reverse logic does not prevail before the season starts, for games of no consequence.

The National Hockey League is not the only one that operates on this model.

National Football League season-ticket holders have to pay for pre-season games.

But the NFL, unlike the NHL, is a successful enterprise with a huge core of loyal fans, who are mad to see pro football at every level.

Apart from the ill-considered and short-lived recent lockout of its referees, the NFL manages labour relations professionally.

It has a contract guaranteeing no player stoppages for another 10 years, along with lucrative, long-term television contracts.

Equally important, the NFL has a revenue-sharing deal that lets all teams from cities as diverse in size as New York and Green Bay compete for players and championships.

The NHL, by comparison, is badly managed.

Today marks the 28th day of the current lockout with — according to league sources on Wednesday — no discussion yet on the “major economic issue or system issues” and a request to “hear something new” from the players’ association.

The league is crying for salary cutbacks from players who accepted a 24 per cent pay rollback in the 2005 lockout, and have watched league revenues grow seven per cent annually since then.

Players are just too expensive, the league says.

This hard stance comes just three months after one team (Minnesota Wild) willingly signed 13-year contracts worth $196 million for two players.

Wild indeed!

How can a league plead poverty while franchise owners spend money like drunken soldiers on shore leave?

There’s also a new four-year, $15-million contract signed by Phoenix Coyotes’ captain Shane Doan.

Doan, who grew up near Stettler, is a wonderful player. But he plays a very hard physical game and will be 40 years old when this new contract expires.

You might think that NHL brass would press the owners of the Coyotes to rein in that kind of expensive, risky payroll promise.

The Coyotes, however, went bankrupt, could not find a buyer and are now owned and managed by the NHL.

If the league cannot restrain its own player payroll spending, how can it hope to rein in the ego-driven multi-millionaires and billionaires who own its franchises?

The erratic behaviour of some makes you shake your head in dismay.

The latest example is Daryl Katz, the billionaire owner of the Edmonton Oilers.

Last year, he made a deal with the City of Edmonton to finance and operate a posh new arena in downtown Edmonton.

Last month, however, Katz said he needed an additional $6-million annual subsidy from Edmonton taxpayers, then visited Seattle to see if he could get a better deal by moving the franchise to Washington state.

The reclusive Katz later said he was surprised that Edmontonians would take offence at this shoddy shakedown attempt.

Albertans love hockey and Northern Albertans especially love the Oilers because of the joy and championships they have brought to the community over the past generation.

If there were a way to keep the game and get rid of some dull blades who are leading it, the NHL would not be skating on such thin ice today.

Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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