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“Bad Faith” and Distrust: A Players’ Perspective on the Lockout

Gary Bettman and the NHL don’t seem to get it. They never have. Since Gary took over in 1993, the NHL has seen three lockouts. Briefly, lockouts occur when the league feels that it can no longer sustain its current activities without a freshly negotiated collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Note, the league is the only one who can lockout the players. If the players are the unhappy party, they can go on strike. The CBA serves as a labor contract between the league and the players’ union on a plethora of subjects ranging from revenue, to contracts, to pensions, etc., etc.

Under Gary Bettman’s tenure, the NHL moved and expanded several teams to non-traditional hockey markets. Some have been successful and won Stanley Cups and filled stands, while others have floundered. The Phoenix Coyotes, originally the Winnipeg Jets, filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and the NHL had to take control of the team and they see some of the lowest attendance numbers in the NHL. The Bettman-expansion Atlanta Thrashers suffered so many losses and ownership struggles, that they moved to Winnipeg to become the new Jets, a city deprived of its original team by Bettman when he moved them to Phoenix to become the failing Coyotes. We can coin this the “Bettman cycle.”

In contract law, there is a term called “bad faith.” The gist of this term is that one of the parties to the contract intentionally or maliciously used deception to make the other party agree to the contract. We will examine this term with regard to the actions of the NHL.

Reports are surfacing that Bettman attempted a “bait-and-switch” of language in their CBA proposal regarding how the NHL could handle team punishments for hiding revenue (Charles Curtis- NJ.com). The league’s language was changed in such a way that Bettman would have sole control of the penalties.

Reports are also surfacing that the owners and their GMs told Gary Bettman, who in turn told the NHLPA, that they would welcome the opportunity to renege some of the contracts they offered to players (Charles Curtis- NJ.com). This of course angered the NHLPA, and why shouldn’t it? If someone offered you millions of dollars and wanted to take it back or even dump you from their roster, would you be happy about it or even ok with it? Of course not. Why is Gary Bettman, under the direction of the owners, doing this? Because they want to lower the salary cap of the NHL by ~$10M per year to $60M. That is a ~15% decrease for those not interested in doing the math.

The NHL was in a dire financial state in 2004 when a lockout took away the season. The reason they bounced back was savvy marketing. What could the NHL have possibly been marketing that would appeal to so many people and bring the league back to such great heights? Could it be players? Of course. And it was. Alex Ovechkin- drafted 2004. Sidney Crosby- drafted 2005. Jonathan Toews- drafted 2006. Patrick Kane- drafted 2007. Steven Stamkos- drafted 2008. New, young marketable players, appealing to young fans and fresh faces leading to increasing profits? You don’t say.

Fan attendance increased in post-lockout 05-06 for 25 of the 30 teams in the NHL. Moreover, the average cost (tickets, concessions, parking, etc.) for a family of four rose from $256 to $329 in 2011, per Forbes. The value of the average NHL team has increased from $159 million in 2003, to $240 million last year, and average NHL player salary from $1.6M to $2.4M (Forbes). Could it be that the reason more and more kids want to play hockey is due to young talents emerging every year and inspiring them? Could it be that the NHL is seeing record fan interest because the best players in the game are in their early twenties, bringing a new young generation of fans to the game? I think so.

Young, talented players like these are why the NHL was saved after the 2004 lockout. Young, talented players were able to bring more and more fans to the game and in turn allowed the league to increase its salary cap EVERY YEAR for the past 8 years. That is EVERY YEAR since the last NHL lockout. Coincidence? I think not.

In 2012, we saw ENORMOUS contracts being handed out left and right for big name players. Crosby- 12 yrs, $104M; Parise- 13 yrs, $98M; Suter- 13 yrs, $98M; Weber- 14 years, $110M. There were plenty of guys signed in the offseason who were arguably overpaid by their teams. For reference, go read articles by beat writers and read fan Twitters from the summer. Plenty of grumbling. Every one of these contracts was offered to players a few months before the collective bargaining agreement expired. The owners knew that the salary cap would be an issue moving forward in negotiating a new CBA, but they offered these contracts anyway. Here we are, 6-7 months later. It is January of the following year. We are still locked out, the players are not receiving their paychecks, and the owners want to LOWER the cap by 15%. The salary cap is STILL an issue the NHL and NHLPA cannot agree on. There is something fishy about this. I’m not saying that Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Nashville are the teams responsible for the lockout. BUT, collectively, the owners knew that the CBA was going to expire very shortly after these contracts were signed, and yet they still offered them. Now, they want to lower the cap and the GMs “regret” and want to renege some of the contracts they offered.

The NHL has shown a mechanical unwillingness to negotiate with the NHLPA. A number of times when the league made proposals and the players countered, Bettman and his cronies stood up and walked out of the room. The NHL has used fruitless, and frankly pathetic, language such as “final offer,” “only offer on the table,” and “take it or leave it” in their negotiations with the NHLPA. Sounds a bit like something a small child would say when he or she doesn’t get his way doesn’t it?

Since the 2004 lockout, NHL league revenues have increased by nearly 64%. Revenues, of course, don’t translate to team profits and there are only a handful of financially viable teams in the league. There are a number of teams struggling financially. Some are struggling due to poor ownership and mismanagement, but others are struggling, because they are in places where hockey fans simply don’t exist and hockey teams don’t belong in the first place. This falls squarely on the owners and the league, not the players. Still, the players have made concessions. They have agreed to a 50-50 split of revenues, they have agreed to limiting contracts. Still not enough. How does the NHL respond? They behave like stubborn children, say “take it or leave it” and LITERALLY just walk out of the room. They try to make a preemptive strike on the NHLPA by going to court and trying to block the NHLPA from disbanding and filing an antitrust suit against the league.

We’ve heard from numerous reporters and writers from TSN and various other news outlets that there is a strong sense of distrust between the NHL and the NHLPA. Are you surprised? I’m not. The players are the ones who bring the fans to the stands. The players are the ones whose skills allow teams to market them and bring people to the arenas. Convincing players to sign for their teams by making them believe that they will receive a large amount of money and ultimately wanting to renege those contracts by masquerading under a new collective bargaining agreement? That is the DEFINITION of “bad faith.” Putting up with the NHL’s unwillingness to compromise, hearing the NHL say “final offer” countless times, watching the NHL storming out of meetings and behave like an 8th grader who just got dumped; do these things seem like the type of behavior that builds trust? Is this behavior expected to be perceived as professional? The question you need to ask yourself is, how would you feel if you were in the players’ shoes? Would you be okay with the NHL wanting to renege some contracts? Would you “trust” them? I sure wouldn’t.

The NHL needs to keep in mind that the players are the ones who rescued the league after the last lockout. The players will be the ones who will help them bounce back from this lockout. Fans don’t come to see Gary Bettman and his golf buddies at hockey games. Fans come to see the Crosbys, and the Ovechkins, and the Toewses. This lockout won’t end until the NHL decides to accept this and start showing some more respect to the players.

Crunched in crunch time: Boxing with Blackhawks/Lightning

"I'm finishing my coffee. Yep, enjoyin' my coffee." (Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune)

Much ado is made about whether or not the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks will qualify for the postseason. But let’s ask ourselves an important question:

If the ‘Hawks do make the playoffs, would it be worth the inevitable embarrassment of getting bitch-slapped by Vancouver? Because that’s what’s going to happen – especially with efforts like Sunday’s.

The 2-0 loss to Tampa Bay is a microcosm of what the Blackhawks are going to be as postseason participants. We’ve been waiting all damn season for the ‘Hawks to live up to their “talent,” and through 78 games we’ve been mostly disappointed. Is there any sign of this being a different team when the Blackhawks hit the ice for the first-round series against the Canucks?

The answer is no. Sunday proved there’s going to need to be a lot of prayer to whatever higher power you answer to in hopes said higher power just ordered a Jonathan Toews FatHead.

Go ahead, call me pessimistic. You’d be 100 percent correct. But if you’re in any way optimistic following Sunday’s wet fart of a performance, get your head examined.

Here’s what the West standings look like heading into Monday:

Yes, I’m aware a series with the Canucks is not a sure thing and the Blackhawks can move up. And I’m also aware the ‘Hawks have had their way with Vancouver in previous postseasons. This isn’t previous postseasons.

On top of that, what makes anyone believe the ‘Hawks can beat Detroit or even San Jose if they can move up to 6th or 7th?

The effort against Tampa Bay was that of a team not realizing the magnitude of what’s happening. The Blackhawks treated all 60 minutes like a Sunday morning drive to church – relaxed, while hoping some figment of their imagination will make everything sweet and wonderful. Forget putting a foot on the gas pedal, because the Blackhawks were taking a handsome cab ride with Rusty guiding the way.

Mike Smith (yeah, I know, Mike Smith) wasn’t in the least bit challenged the entire night, and an early power-play goal off Niklas Hjalmarsson’s dipshit delay-of-game penalty culminating with Brent Seabrook thinking about the next episode of Chicago Code as Vincent Lecavalier converted did the Blackhawks in.

And before you say anything, I don’t care if Dave Bolland and Patrick Sharp are out. It’s no excuse. The effort put forth Sunday wouldn’t have beaten the Charleston Chiefs.

Onto Boxing, if you dare …

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Standings Update and Tampa Preview: Nail-Biting Continues

Photo: chicitysports.com

Okay, last night was good. Lots of teams that we needed to lose, actually lost. Those include Anaheim, Dallas and Nashville. And there was much rejoicing.

The standings of relevant teams in the Western Conference now look like this:

4th:  Los Angeles  (96 points, 4 games remaining, 36 non-shootout wins)
5th:  Phoenix  (96, 3, 37)
6th:  Nashville  (95, 3, 36)
7th:  Anaheim  (93, 4, 40)
8th:  Chicago  (92, 5, 36)
9th:  Calgary  (89, 3, 30)
10th:  Dallas  (87, 6, 33)

Why Los Angeles is ahead of Phoenix is a little stymieing, but it doesn’t involve the Blackhawks at this point, so screw it. One day I’ll invest the 2 minutes necessary to research the answer, but not right now.

The other games of consequence tonight are actually pretty big ones for us. Calgary takes on Colorado, and Dallas is at Anaheim. Victory for the Men of Four Feathers coupled with losses by the Flames and Stars make it nearly impossible for either of those teams to make the post-season, in-effect guaranteeing the Blackhawks a ticket to the playoffs. So while you’re cheering the ‘Hawks, keep an eye on those two tilts.

Tonight the ‘Hawks take the ice against a potent and crowd-energizing Lightning team boasting two how’d-they-do-that offensive powerhouses in Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, as well as 41-year-old comeback kid goaltender Dwayne Roloson. But the secret behind this team is two-fold: first, Stamkos and St. Louis are nearly all of the Lightning’s offensive punch; and secondly, Roloson is rarely exceptional — he’s very often only as good as he has to be on any given night.

Evidence? How about most of the roster being in a negative plus-minus, many of whom in double-digit negative? How about one (count him, one) 20-goal scorer aside from the afore-mentioned howitzers? How about winning games by decidedly unimpressive margins in nearly every outing? And how about a team GAA closer to 3 than 2, and a save percentage a fingernail above 90%?

This team is beatable. And we proved that in Tampa less than a month ago, we just couldn’t recover from the loss of Dave Bolland early in the matchup thanks to Pavel Kubina’s elbow to the head.

Umm, guys? Yeah… Okay, good. You remembered. Just one request: blood splatter. We want to see blood splatter.

No lineup changes for the Blackhawks, Corey Crawford is your goaltender for the next week unless he runs off with Britney Spears or something. Lightning defenseman Randy Jones is the only player absent from the visitors’ bench.

Family-friendly 6:00pm puck drop at the United Center this evening. National coverage of the game is available on the NHL Network, although Chicagoland will see the game on WGN. Broadcast radio is WGN AM-720, and XM subscribers will hear the game on channel 207.

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Too Many Men on the Site

Shake It Off: ‘Hawks Try To Stay Grounded Against Bolts

Photo: Getty Images

It was one game. And really, it was just one period. The Blackhawks ran circles around the Panthers and launched 29 shots on goal in the second and third on Tuesday night. They just didn’t get the bounces and were up against a very talented, very lucky goaltender guarding the twine.

So, that happened. Cough it up, spit it out, and forget about it. Tonight we’re playing one of the hottest, most talented teams in the Tampa Bay Lightning. We’re going to have to put together a 60-minute performance that looks like our 40-minute performance last night.

The LAST 40 minutes.

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Lightning To Strike in Winnipeg

Photo: Nick Moir

Much was made of the off-season moves by the Tampa Bay Lightning, as they first brought in Steve Yzerman as GM, who then brought in AHL and Major Junior coaching enigma Guy Boucher as Head Coach. Many trades ensued and free agents were signed, and the result is that the Lightning team that will take the ice against the Blackhawks in Winnipeg may be a little (*ahem*) shocking.

First, to the personnel. Consistent, if past-their-prime forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis return to join young powerhouse Steven Stamkos. Those three players accounted for just over half of the goals scored by the Lightning last year, so more scoring punch was definitely needed. So Simon Gagne was acquired from the Flyers, and Coach Boucher must now fill out the ranks with the least of many evils from the youth and middling veteran talent that remains in camp. Two long-time veterans from the KHL were acquired in the form of Johan Harju and Niklas Persson, but only time will tell if that experiment delivers the jolt it was intended to.

On defense, youngster Victor Hedman is now joined by four relatively steady, but by no means spectacular veterans: Pavel Kubina, Matthieu Roy, Brett Clark, and Randy Jones. Defense was Tampa Bay’s biggest problem last year, allowing 260 goals against, fourth-worst in the league. However it is puzzling to try to figure out what Yzerman’s strategy is, not bringing in a marquee defensive pair to anchor the team. One problem at a time, I guess.

Which brings us to goaltending. To replace the departed Antero Nittymaki, Yzerman has acquired yawn-inducing Dan Ellis, who spent last year with Nashville amassing a barely-winning record and a .909 save percentage over 31 games. Not exactly the kind of guy who can energize a team or its fans. In fact, the biggest headline Ellis has made in his NHL career actually came about because of a comment he made on his Twitter account.

But there appears to me some method to Yzerman’s madness. Believe it or not, it appears that what the first-year GM is hoping to do this season is win using the member of the organ-eye-zation least likely to score a goal, block a shot, or make a save: his coach.

Guy Boucher holds a post-graduate degree in Sports Psychology, and has implemented a radical offensive system not seen before in the NHL with any consistency, called a 1-3-1 forecheck. The first man into the zone pushes the puck to the outside, while the strong-side defenseman and remaining two forwards press to that side three-across, leaving one defenseman to cover counter-attacks.

Boucher has run the system with significant success. In his first year behind the bench with the Hamilton Bulldogs he racked up 52 wins, good for the second-best record in the AHL. The 1-3-1 has been the exclusive focus of the Bolts’ training camp efforts. The specific details are either a big secret, or so complicated that nobody is willing to talk about them and risk looking like an idiot. Even the Tampa Bay press is mostly cloudy on the subject.

Boucher and the Bolts will premiere this new strategy Tuesday night against Dallas. What success they have with it remains to be seen, and it should be noted that the three big offensive threats mentioned earlier will be resting against the Stars to be fresh for when they meet the Hawks in Winnipeg on Wednesday.

So they’re throwing the big guns at us right out of the gate, and word late Tuesday is that Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, and Duncan Keith, will all be in the lineup for the Blackhawks. Add to that some fully-loaded up-and-comers in Igor Makarov, Viktor Stalberg, and Jeremy Morin, plus Nick Leddy on defense. And Coach Q, not being one to keep the public waiting, is giving us a taste of Marty Turco in his first outing as a Blackhawk. He will split the game with moderately talented and definitely unpronounceable Hannu Toivonen.

So the fans in Winnipeg should be in for a doozy. Or, depending on whether Boucher’s 1-3-1 can work at the NHL level (and if the Lightning players have had enough practice to execute it properly), we may see a game of shinny erupt and a 15-2 Blackhawks victory.

Either way, it will be one Blackhawks fans won’t want to miss. And thankfully, with Comcast Sports Net covering this and two other home games, they don’t have to!

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