The fourth NHL lockout since 1990 has affected everyone from players and owners, to fans and sports writers. The league recently cancelled its Winter Classic, and currently has no meeting scheduled for negotiations with the NHL Players’ Association. L.A. Times columnist Helene Elliott spoke with Bill about key issues in the dispute and how the impasse could affect both the season and the NHL fan base.
Q:The lockout began on Sept. 16. It’s been over two weeks since the league and the union have even negotiated. Why is that?
A: Because they are being stubborn and because this is all about egos and Gary Bettman is not a negotiator. There is a deal to be made there, but Gary Bettman is not a deal maker. He is a dictator, and he is not budging.
Q: If somebody were to step in on Mr. Bettman’s behalf, what would need to be negotiated at this point?
A: They key issue at this point is how the players would go from having gotten 57 percent of hockey-related revenues last season to getting 50 percent in next season, whenever next season may be. They’ve already agreed on the 50-50 split, the question is how they get there, and players understandably want the full value of their contracts. Players are looking for a gradual phase-in down to 50 percent and the owners want to go to 50 right away. That’s basically what’s holding them up at this point.
Q: The league has canceled its annual Winter Classic in Ann Arbor. What does the league lose if there is no Winter Classic?
A: What the league loses is one of its biggest marketing opportunities to go back to the roots of the game and the essential beauty of skating on a pond and feeling the wind against your face and all that. This was going to be a huge thing. It wasn’t just the game at Michigan Stadium. It was going to be a hockey festival in downtown Detroit. It was gonna be college games. It was gonna be alumni games. It was going to be a huge deal and an incredibly big revenue generator for the NHL. After they cancelled the last round of games they said they had lost $720 million in revenues. How much more are they going to lose now, and how are they going to recover?
Q: There is also talk that the All-Star Game could be cancelled, but wouldn’t it be silly to stage that game if the season starts too late to identify the stars?
A: I’m for cancelling the All-Star game every year, frankly. I think those things have kind of outlived their usefulness. As you see in every sport, really, players come up with these mysterious sudden injuries, it seems, right before the All-Star game. It would be silly to play the All-Star game on Jan. 27 if you’re starting your season on Jan. 1. The only reason to do it would be because they promised the city—this time it’s Columbus’ chance to host. I think that would be the next domino to fall.
Q: As often happens during these sports labor disputes, many invoke the “A Pox on Both Your Houses” approach. Do you see it that way?
A: I do, to a degree, and the thing that’s really striking to me—and this is the third NHL lockout I’ve covered—there just seems to be a lot more anger on the fans’ part, and—you know what’s even worse than anger—is apathy. Fans saying, “you know what, I’ve already moved on. I don’t want to go through his every six or seven or eight years and give my passion and pay my money and then have the season just cancelled or cut short.” People are genuinely upset about this, and I just don’t see what possible gain that Gary Bettman can get from players that is going to outweigh the damage that he’s doing to the game right now.
Q: Currently, there is no plan for the two sides to talk face to face. What’s your best prediction about what happens next?
A: I think the next step will be Gary Bettman will come up with a deadline for saving the season. I think they really need some fresh ideas. I think they need to include, maybe, more people at the table. There are owners who want to play—let those owners talk too, let those owners give their sense of what should happen next, and maybe we’ll get closer to a resolution here.