Nobody knows when the 2012/13 National Hockey League (NHL) season will begin, or if there will even be a season. The start of the league was delayed after the league and its team owners failed to reach a settlement with players on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement by the 15th of September deadline. With little progress since then and no end to the stalemate in sight, SportsPro sought the views of one of North America’s leading hockey agents.
In the first of a two-part interview, Octagon Hockey’s Allan Walsh believes the NHL has become a “laughing stock” of professional sport and that commissioner Gary Bettman’s position has become virtually untenable.
From your perspective, how did the NHL get itself in this position?
"A lockout just allows the owners and the league as a conglomerate to come after the players again and just demand more"
I think salary cap systems in and of themselves breed lockouts. In North America you have the NFL, the NBA, the NHL now, all salary cap sports and all immediately going to lockout.
A lockout just allows, when the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement expires, the owners and the league as a conglomerate to come after the players again, or whatever union is up for a new CBA within the system, and just demand more.
The CBA expired in 1994, we had half a season lockout; it expired in 2004, we missed the whole season; and here we are locked out again. So the three times since 1994 the CBA has expired, the league has been unable to bring a deal to the table before a lockout. It certainly appears – in fact, I would say it’s a fact – that the league’s primary strategy is lockout first and ask questions later. If you look at the offers that were presented to the players before the CBA expired on September 15th, there was no chance there was any element of that deal that would be acceptable to the players – nothing.
What’s your reading, a few weeks in, into the damage that’s being done to the league and its image?
I think the damage is extensive and profound. The NHL very much is becoming a laughing stock in the professional sports world. What did the league do? They put an offer out there that they knew, in advance, would be unacceptable to the players, they refused to be negotiated off their own offer, they refused to negotiate off the players proposal, which was very realistic in addressing the specific issues the league needed to address. The players’ association went ‘here are the key issues for the league, we have to present a proposal that addresses those issues’ and the league said ‘don’t tell us how to run our business, it’s either going to be our way or no way.'
"Apart from the damage to the image and brand of the NHL in real dollars they’ve already lost US$225 million in revenue with no end in sight"
What professional sport can afford to shut their doors for two out of eight years and expect to grow the game? In 1994 the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup and there was a big story in Sports Illustrated that said ‘hockey is here, it’s now poised, hockey’s going to take off, hockey’s going to overcome the NBA’ and then they locked out half the season and all the momentum was lost. Now you have the LA Kings winning the Stanley Cup. There’s unprecedented interest in the league in the southern part of the United States, the very area where [NHL commissioner] Gary Bettman’s whole NHL expansion strategy was aimed at, and all the momentum in Los Angeles where I reside….everywhere I go, people look at me and shake their heads and say ‘can you believe they’re doing this again?’
The fans are angry, the advertisers are getting fed up. Bill Daly, the deputy commissioner, said by cancelling the NHL pre-season the league has lost US$100 million in revenue and by cancelling the first two weeks of the season they’ve lost another US$125 million, so apart from the damage to the image and brand of the NHL in real dollars they’ve already lost US$225 million in revenue with no end in sight.
Do you believe, as and when a new CBA is agreed, Gary Bettman should still be running the NHL?
The commissioner works for the owners. There has to be some measure of communication between the players and the commissioner as well, some measure of respect. You look at the commissioners in other sports leagues and they may not be the favourite person amongst the players but I think, in general, NBA players have a respect for David Stern. And I think there’s some measure of respect from NFL players to Roger Goodell. I think the level of abject hatred right now amongst NHL players towards Bettman is such that he cannot continue in his current position.
"I think one of the things that’s going to come out of this lockout, whether we make a deal this year or not, is that Bettman will be gone because the players will refuse to deal with him going forward"
The players are fed up. This is the third time in a row he’s resorted to a lockout without bargaining beforehand in good faith and even trying in any way to make a deal. The strategy is ‘lock the players out, force them to miss paychecks, soften them up and then see if they’re willing to surrender. And if they are, make a deal in November or December on our terms and if they’re not, we’ll just cancel the season and start again in the summer and see if they’re softened up then’. This is the players’ livelihood and it’s more than just the paychecks. The players truly love the game.
When you get to the point we’re at now, after three consecutive lockouts, I think the players are ready to take a stand. The players that I talk to and I do it on a daily basis – our agency represents approximately 100 players in the NHL right now – and what we’re hearing is Bettman cannot continue in his job. I think one of the things that’s going to come out of this lockout, whether we make a deal this year or not, is that Bettman will be gone because the players will refuse to deal with him going forward.
How frustrating is this lockout for you as an agent?
I don’t think there’s a person attached to hockey who is enjoying the lockout or wants to see the lockout continue. We all want our hockey back, we all want to see the league continuing to thrive. It’s quite remarkable to think the NBA’s league-wide revenues last season were US$3.9 billion and the NHL’s were US$3.3 billion, so less than US$600 million separates the two leagues. The NHL played remarkable catch-up and to see all of that going into the waste basket, self-inflicted, is disheartening to say the least.
Do you see an end in sight?
I have no idea, absolutely no idea. It appears to me that the NHL has a certain date in their minds of when they’re going to be prepared to negotiate a deal. They certainly haven’t been willing to negotiate anything up till now.
Would the Winter Classic provide a neat starting point?
"I don’t think there’s a person attached to hockey who is enjoying the lockout or wants to see the lockout continue"
It could. A lot of the pundits will say the NHL doesn’t want to lose that game and certainly doesn’t want to lose the revenues that come out of it. This year the game is in University of Michigan’s Big House football stadium – 110,000 seats, which have all been sold. It’s Toronto versus Detroit so it involves a Canada versus US element; the proximity to Canada and the fact the game is being played in one of the largest football stadiums in North America would allow for unprecedented interest on television at a time when the Winter Classic has been branded as a significant sporting event that has had phenomenal TV ratings and tremendous interest. The events built around the Winter Classic this year, from two alumni games featuring former NHL stars, junior games, college games that will all be played outdoors, would allow for a one-week to ten-day stream of events garnering tremendous coverage in the media and amongst fans. To lose that would really set the NHL back several years, so why would you work so hard to build your brand and to grow your game to then shut it down and destroy everything you’ve just built. It’s really nonsensical.
The second part of Allan Walsh’s in-depth interview with SportsPro will be published on the website on Friday 12th October.