I guess it’s appropriate to start by saying that we’re all unimaginably happy about the return of hockey. That said, we’ve learned a lot over the four-month lockout, and this seems like the appropriate time to take stock.
The NHL is a garage league. I’m not talking about riff-raff players spoiling up the staid finesse hockey of a bygone era; I’m talking about business competence. Since my adolescence, the NHL has lost part or all of three seasons. Fans who have been following hockey for a decade have seen 20% of that time obscured or obliterated by lockouts.
Imagine running a business where you do work 80% of the time. The rest of the time you’re struggling to master a skill most functionally social humans learn in kindergarten: sharing. Your business plan is flawed.
The last lockout saw the NHL exiled to cable wilderness, almost literally. In an effort to limit salary expenses, the NHL ended up limiting their TV exposure for years, which had to have an appreciable effect on revenue. Revenue-sharing was at the heart of this lockout, so in some ways this lockout was just an extension of that one.
Or perhaps it’s an extension of expansion. We know many teams– particularly expansion teams– are drowning in red ink. Columbus and Phoenix have solubility problems. Nashville would be in dire trouble too if they weren’t such a good hockey team with a surging fan base. These teams exist because the NHL saw fit to spread itself into non-traditional (read: not northeast US and Canada) markets, but those teams have always struggled. Phoenix for a time was underwritten by the league itself.
I propose that the friction between established teams and small-market teams had as much to do with this lockout as friction between owners and players. In fact, the PA’s negotiating strategy initially tried to wedge the two apart. It seems hard to defend expansion as a business strategy when you consider a) the league has had to bail these teams out, b) the gap between small teams and big teams underpinned many of the NHL’s concerns in the lockout, and c) it’s ice hockey in the freaking desert— how is that a good idea?
I guess what I’m trying to say is: Gary Bettman is not good at his job. Feel free to agree or disagree.
Or at least, it isn’t right now. Flashback to April 2012: the Caps had captured the city’s imagination with a gritty style of hockey. The city’s football team was atrocious and without a good draft position. The city’s baseball team was plagued by injury and youth. The city’s soccer team had missed the playoffs a few years in a row. The city’s basketball team was a disgrace.
Since then, Dan Snyder made some deals to draft Robert Griffin III second overall, and RG3 then vaulted the team to an NFC East Championship. The Nationals were fantastic and made the playoffs (so did Baltimore, nyah nyah). Under coach Ben Olsen, DC United had its best year since they won the MLS Championship in 2007. The city’s basketball team is still a disgrace.
The stack ranking of DC sports has flipped. It seems for now that the Washington Capitals’ moment has passed. It can certainly be recaptured, but right now we’re taking stock and that stock has definitely dropped.
Part of that is Ted Leonsis’ fault. The Capitals owner was listed among the league’s so-called hardliners spurring the stubbornness that led to breakdowns during negotiations. Unfortunately, Ted probably can’t comment on the CBA or his characterization as a holdout. When he talked about the NBA salary cap in September of 2010, Leonsis was fined $100,000. He’s not really in a position to defend himself, which is fine, because we’re not really in a position to give him a hard time about it. After all, he did keep the Capitals staff on payroll for the duration of the lockout.
Leonsis has the benefit of the doubt. Up until now (and excluding the Jagr era), he’s been a good owner for the fans. This is now his opportunity to reconcile with a community that has cooled towards him.
Throughout 2012, Evgeny Kuznetsov vacillated over playing in the NHL or staying in the KHL. His new marriage and the upcoming Sochi olympics probably factored in to his eventual decision to stay in Russia for two more years, but the loss of half this NHL season makes that choice even more prescient. We’re no longer inclined to criticize a player for making a business decision that has worked out great for him so far.
Same goes with Dale Hunter, a coach for whom I had no shortage of criticism last season. Hunter chose to leave the Caps after just one partial season as head coach. He’s back in Ontario, coaching a team he also owns, which plays in a league that doesn’t implode every 7-10 years. However we disagreed with his coaching tactics, Hunter’s choice was the smart one for him, his family, and his farm. Even Bourne agrees.
As The Washington Post’s Katie Carrera wrote last month, the lockout has been devastating to businesses near Verizon Center. The end of the lockout will come as great news to the Penn Quarter/Chinatown neighborhood, who rely on the collective thirst and hunger of Caps fans to pay their bills. Here’s hoping all our favorite joints can staff up in the coming weeks.
Same for the workers at Verizon Center, who lost hours due to the lockout.
Then there’s the marginal players who couldn’t make a pro roster once the ranks got crowded with eligible NHL players.
And don’t forget the esteemed hockey writers who had to lower themselves to menial and demeaning tasks like writing about football just to fill up the hours.
There’s lots of people with jobs related directly or tangentially to the Caps, and most of them had a leaner Christmas than usual because of the lockout.
It’ll take time for the coffers to fill and the wounds to heal, but it will require a spirit of reconciliation for that to happen. That’s why I’m not supporting any kind of boycott. Just the opposite actually: I want to go to Iron Horse and Clyde’s and Rocket Bar and scarf down a ton of food and a few too many adult beverages. I want to tip the good workers at Verizon Center and tell them how glad I am to see them again.
And I harbor no hard feelings towards Evgeny Kuznetsov or Dale Hunter for making the right choices for their careers and their families.
And I hold no grudge against Ted Leonsis for whatever role he played in the lockout. He’s got a sterling record of fan outreach, and I bet that will continue.
Gary Bettman, on the other hand? Well, let’s just say that when the Stanley Cup Finals arrive, I’ll be joining in on this tradition:
Alright, that’s my piece. What did you learn from the lockout? What did I get wrong?
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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