Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Eleventh Hour

(Editor’s Note: This is the second digression from our principal topic, baseball, in the last few weeks. With catchers and pitchers reporting today, we expect to be more focused going forward.)

We baby-boomers have been accused of lacking perspective in most matters historical; our progeny are deemed even less conversant with the past. So when the NHL cancelled its entire season yesterday, a first for major league sports in North America, baby-boomers and their offspring everywhere, whether hockey fans or not, surely shook their heads and concluded that current labor relations in hockey must represent a new low in professional sport.

We may be right this time.

Recent history gave us the 1994-95 baseball seasons during which a strike lasting 232 days finally forced cancellation of the ’94 World Series, the first such cancellation in 92 years. (The strike began in August, 1994, and lasted through the end of the regular and post-seasons and all of Spring training in 1995. A few regular-season games were also lost at the start of the 1995 season before both sides put a halt to further self-inflicted wounds.) The NBA strike of 1998-99 lasted 191 days and cost 928 games. The NHL lockout of 1994-95 ran for 103 days and resulted in the cancellation of 468 games. And, of course, there was the infamous 1987 NFL strike during which the owners hired replacement players two weeks into the walkout before a settlement was reached.

Eventually the antagonists in these sports reached enough of an accommodation to salvage a portion of each season, though the cancellation of the ’94 playoffs and World Series after two months of a walkout certainly ended that season unceremoniously (pun intended).

A few things seem axiomatic about most labor negotiations, inside and outside the world of sport. For one thing, preliminary exchanges of positions seem largely a waste of time; most serious negotiations seem to take place at the eleventh hour. Second, final offers are rarely that. And third, both parties might say a lot of nasty things about each other but such behavior is considered posturing with at least one eye on the public.

At this stage, no one is sure what will happen with the NHL next season. Having allegedly come close to a settlement at their eleventh hour, both sides stiffened and refused to go further. Now, everyone associated with hockey is understandably reluctant to predict when, let alone if, the two sides will start negotiations regarding next year. The degree of bitterness is palpable, especially on the players’ side. And despite some “defections”, especially by European-born players who could and did sign with European clubs and played during the negotiations, the Union appears determined not to make more concessions.

For their part, management is expressing the customary sadness and disappointment, but in the final analysis they held the power to cancel an entire season and they exercised that authority. Their next collective decision is to determine whether or not they can afford to lose the lucrative sponsorships, media revenue and, yes, season-ticket revenues anticipated for next year. The guess here is they cannot.

Stay tuned . . . for developments at the eleventh hour.

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