There can be no hockey league without hockey players

BY GUEST COLUMN | JULY 18, 2012 6:30 AM

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On July 14, as we went about our quiet and desperate lives, a nefarious plot, motivated by greed and steeped in crass arrogance and ugly braggadocio, was launched into the world to wreak havoc and cause misery for millions of people: the NHL's new collective-bargaining proposal.

While this is, obviously, overstating the importance of negotiations in a niche sport (although not to me), it is indicative of a worrisome trend in attitudes toward labor.

First of all, the owners' proposal drastically restructures and reduces players' ability to negotiate for themselves, setting strict limitations on contract length and access to arbitration and appeal of grievances, and it makes substantial cuts in their salaries.

Of course, your first proposal is usually more than you think you're going to get; these hard-line demands were expected, and most experts believe some tepid compromise — except, I'm not so sure.

Though for your average UI student, the NHL didn't exist until 2009, it has in fact existed for a very long time. Part of the reason it was veiled in obscurity was that the last time the league negotiated a collective-bargaining agreement, it canceled the entire season until the players capitulated.

Six NHL owners who also own NBA teams expressed a belief that a missed season is "worth it" to get the deal they want at an owners' meeting during the NBA labor negotiations last summer. And of course, there is Gary Bettman, who put a hockey team in California to help Disney sell movie tickets a year after another lockout. Such sterling dedication to profit doesn't bode well for a full season.

The claims are the same as eight years ago: the need for "cost certainty" — that is, no risk. But that's a tenuous argument to make when league revenues are at an all-time high ($3 billion this year); it's an idiotic argument to make when you put teams in places with no snow or historical fan base — despite those locales paying up to (on average) 80 percent of stadium construction costs, subsidizing team expenses through tax-breaks, and in some cases, cash payments to the NHL for "team expense fees."

The Phoenix Coyotes, Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Nashville Predators are losing money for a myriad of reasons, but chiefly because no one in those cities really gives a crap about hockey, which is fine. It's not for everybody — neither is dressage.

But to insist upon endless expansion, even to places that obviously won't support professional hockey beyond municipal bonds, and then turn around and blame losses on the salaries of players who wreck their bodies, obviously for money but also pride and love of the game, is disgusting. There would be zero revenue without that sacrifice; a sacrifice increasingly marginalized in the NHL and most other American sports leagues.

Of course, I can understand why there's apathy toward the precise allocation of billions of dollars among 30 billionaires and 690 millionaires. I agree whole-heartedly. A vast network of people (groundsmen, stadium staff, medical assistants, etc.) provide the physical means for games and leagues to exist, and they are largely excluded from the benefits of record profits, as they are in every other sector of the economy.

However, even in something as popular, sexy, and profitable as professional sports, labor ("skilled," organized, or otherwise) is being cut out from receiving a fair share of wealth they are solely responsible for generating. But there can be no hockey league without hockey players; there can be no profits without labor.

Both deserve better compensation.

Jesse Marks
UI senior

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