By Ryan Lambert
Trending Topics is a column that looks at the week in hockey, occasionally according to Twitter. If you're only going to comment to say how stupid Twitter is, why not just go have a good cry for the slow, sad death of your dear internet instead?
Well here we go again.
A few weeks after the league presented its laughable, insulting opening salvo in this latest labor war, it more or less dropped the hammer once again, all but saying the one word no hockey fan wants to hear.
You know what that word is. It's the one that starts with an L and ends with missing at least a few games from this upcoming season. It's the word that has been on everyone's lips since the first salary-gutting proposal the owners tabled. It's the word that got screamed in fonts as big as you like in headlines on every hockey website worth reading.
Of course, it's "lockout."
But as Marc Spector pointed out just minutes before yesterday's newsworthy announcement, there are a great number of misconceptions about the lockout. And pretty much all of them start with Gary Bettman himself, which is perhaps inevitable.
What people seem to forget, pretty much constantly, is that Bettman serves at the owners' pleasure. They tell him to go say a thing, and jeez that thing gets said in a hurry. People act as though he's evil, they boo him every time he appears in public (except in the greater Los Angeles area, apparently), and now they say things like, to sample a few of the top bookmarks in my browser:
You get the picture. I understand he's the league commissioner and he was the one who said those things. I also understand that, as many were terribly quick to point out in the immediate wake of the announcement, he might soon be presiding over his third lockout since 1994. That's quite the record, and gives the world a pretty nice target for vitriol because it looks like he is the one depriving the world of NHL hockey.
Bettman, however, is not an inherently evil guy. His biggest crime isn't personally barring the doors to every rink in the NHL with novelty-sized giant padlocks, then swallowing the keys with an [expletive]-eating grin. It's being a puppet to cartoonishly cynical owners who demand that the players' union give, give, give until salaries — set by the rules they foisted upon the NHLPA seven years ago, let's not forget — are rolled back to levels not seen since 2007-08 (because of the new way in which they would be able to define hockey-related revenues). The word draconian springs readily to mind, and clearly, people already have their target.
Soon after the announcement, Sabres tough guy Steve Ott tweeted [all sic], "Sad to see Bettman bring up the words LOCKOUT, it was tough on everyone staff, arena people, and the FANS in 2004. The game is to Good!"
Bettman, of course, would never ever ever ever ever bring up the word "lockout." Never once. History tells us the preferred NHL language is "work stoppage," and while it's a semantical argument, it's easy to see how much Bettman looms over these proceedings. And apparently, it's far harder to see past the bright spotlight he constantly pulls to himself and spot the strings being pulled by warhawk owners like Jeremy Jacobs and Ed Snider, who want to extract a pound of flesh from the players. The latter party's biggest misstep in all this seems to have been simply adhering to the rules and taking the lunatic $100 million contracts now routinely proffered them by, you know, owners, and they must be made to pay for it.
A quick survey conducted around 5:30 p.m. of tweets using the word "lockout" found that fans and media alike were firmly focusing their venom on Bettman himself. More than half the tweets that loaded immediately menioned dastardly, mustache-twirling Bettman by name. Adam Proteau's use of the word "bully" is especially provocative. As though Bettman kicked Donald Fehr's chair out from under him just as he was about to sit down.
Admittedly, it's not easy in this situation, particularly if you're a fan of a power-wielding big-market team with a massive payroll. It must be hard to separate both that these are the guys cutting checks for all your favorite players, and also the ones that are essentially getting between you and the sport and team you love. Worse, when hockey does eventually come back, they'll be the ones reaping the rewards from every seat you fill, every beer you buy, every jersey you put on. Players profit from your doing so as well, indirectly, of course, and on an individual basis, considerably less so than do the owners. Such is the inherent unfairness of labor and ownership in professional sports.
We're drawn back to hockey, always, inexorably. The villains holding the purse strings get to laugh at how dumb we are. Keep buying tickets. Keep buying Center Ice. Keep buying hats and shirts.
Of course, it's not entirely true to say that the games immediately after the last lockout were played in front of full buildings, which is a common cry from those who don't know quite where to point the finger and figure the fans must in some way be culpable for revenues growing 50 percent in seven years, as though loving this sport and even this league were some sort of character flaw.
We've been treated to some marvelous hockey in the last few years. Just incredible stuff from once-in-a-lifetime talents. We saw goaltending records fall despite rules designed to limit netminders' abilities. We saw Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos score 60. We saw Sid Crosby declare an all-out war on opposing defenses and more or less win it. The reason hockey is doing better now than it ever has before is because hockey is itself has improved immeasurably. It was impossible not to be drawn in.
No one thought baseball fans were jerks for getting caught up in the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run race so soon after Fehr oversaw the players' strike in Major League Baseball. There was a lot of talk, in fact, about how that helped to "heal" America's relationship with its national pastime. Now, hockey fans are scolded for returning to their sport, and memories of exactly how they did so are distorted so that they can be more easily blamed for this lockout.
So much fingerpointing, so little actually headed where it belongs. Bettman's a proxy, and that's by design. At least this time around, no one is saying the players are at fault. Oh wait.
Pearls of Biz-dom
We all know that there isn't a better Twitter account out there than that of Paul Bissonnette. So why not find his best bit of advice on love, life and lappers from the last week?
BizNasty on the latest technology: "Not even Instagram can make pictures taken with Blackberry's look good."
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