SAN JOSE -- Enough, guys. It's time.
Yes, you guys. The owners and players of the National Hockey League. You have wasted your customers' patience long enough. Christmas is nigh. You need to get this lockout settled.
It's true that the Kabuki theater of the negotiations -- with all the blustering and posturing -- has been mildly entertaining. But that's only because most of us figured they would be concluded by now and that no league in any sport would be stupid enough to risk canceling two entire seasons within a span of nine years.
Yet here we are. The two sides are still talking, at least. And according to the Twitter feed of the NHLPA, Douglas Murray of the Sharks was among the players' delegation Wednesday at a New Jersey mediation office. This conjured up the delightful vision of Murray going into the corner and slamming a hip check into NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Alas, that's not what occurred. The two negotiating parties were never in the same room Wednesday. They each met with mediators in separate sessions, trying to assemble terms that would be acceptable for all. But at day's end, nothing was settled. And it was unclear if there would be another session Thursday -- or any other day.
Enough. It's time.
Meanwhile, as the squabbling continued back east, there was a fascinating development back here in the Bay Area. The people at HP Pavilion announced that all 17,562 tickets had been distributed for next Monday's minor league hockey game there between the San Francisco Bulls and the Stockton Thunder. The tickets were free to those who applied for them. But on Wednesday afternoon, some of those "free" tickets were being scalped for up to $40 each on Craigslist.
Not sure what that means. It probably means that hockey fans, per their reputation, are the most dedicated and passionate (some would say crazed and sick) fans in North America. It probably means they are desperate to watch a game in San Jose, any game. It probably means that when/if the NHL season begins, those fans will return. They are the sports version of Deadheads, ready to show up for the next tour whenever and wherever.
But to really thrive, the NHL needs more than the Deadheads/puckheads. It needs the casual fans who show up for a game or two per season or who might watch some games on television. If another season is scrubbed, those are the fans who will find other things to do and won't come back quickly.
Enough, guys. It's time.
Normally, the stance here toward all the labor-management negotiations in major league sports has been of the heck-with-both-sides variety. It can give you a headache if you really dig into the arcane details of offers and counteroffers. Why bother? The best strategy is to ignore the ups and downs, wait out the feuding little kids and tell them to wake us up when they get a deal.
But such a view is harder to adopt this time -- if only because last week, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly issued perhaps the most over-the-top statement in sports contract bargaining history.
At a media session podium after the breakup of one players-vs.-league session and trying to explain where the NHL stood, Daly proclaimed: "This is the hill we will die on." He was referring to the owners' intractable stance on three issues -- term limits on player contracts, a 10-year labor agreement (with an NHLPA option to reopen after eight years) and the transition terms from the expired agreement to the next one regarding buyouts of current contracts and other matters.
The quote was ridiculous on multiple levels. Besides being disrespectful to, you know, soldiers of all nations who actually did die on hills, Daly's language was indicative of how deluded hockey owners are about their business' place in the universe. Even here in Northern California, where Sharks fans are as loyal as any in the league, most of them approach the games as an excellent night of competitive entertainment rather than a religious pilgrimage.
Enough, guys. It's time.
The players, on the other hand, have been honest about wanting the best deal possible, without drawing preposterous battlefield analogies into the picture. They know the owners have them over a barrel because the owners control the arenas and the schedule. These negotiations have been about the players trying to hold onto as much of their current deal as possible, not about them wanting more.
One of Canada's most respected sports columnists, Eric Duhatschek of the national Globe and Mail, did some calculating last week. He figured out that basically, this fight is about 3-12 percent of the workforce. The owners (and the Sharks are among the franchises most firm about this) want to limit contract terms to five seasons. About 90 players currently have deals longer than that. The union wants that contract term limit to be eight seasons. About 22 players have deals longer than that.
There are 750 players in the league. Can it really be that impossible to bridge a gap that doesn't even involve the vast majority of the employees? It's not too late to play a fairly meaningful schedule. In 1994-95, when yet another lockout was settled in midwinter, the season began in mid-January and lasted 48 games.
Or perhaps stupidity and hill-dying will conquer all. For the last seven years, my half-serious, half-joking contention has been that the Sharks were hurt worse than any other team by the 2004-05 lost lockout season because that was going to be their Stanley Cup destiny. Someone was supposed to win it that year. Why not the Sharks? They had reached the conference finals the previous season. We'll never know where the 2005 championship banner was supposed to hang. It's a ghost banner. Does the NHL want another one?
Enough, guys. It's time.