Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A beautiful game... and a spoiled sport

Women's Olympic soccer team provides defining moment; NHL lockout redefining stubbornness

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One story is about a collection of men making a combined $1.8 billion in salary, toiling in luxury and adulation, involved in a bitter and confounding labour dispute with their billionaire employers.

The other story is about a collection of women on amateur per diems, grabbing the attention of a nation for all the right reasons, even if only to prove not every sports fairy tale ends happily ever after.

A tale of two pities.

But if the Canadian women's Olympic soccer team's epic bronze-medal journey at the 2012 London Olympics did anything, in light of the prolonged NHL lockout that followed, it helped underline the disparate economic realities of global athletics and why sports can represent the best and worst of the games people play.

Take the NHL first. Please.

The sheer numbers that dominate the multimillion-dollar game of chicken between filthy-rich owners and their extravagantly compensated employees can appear staggering to the collaterally damaged -- otherwise known as hockey fans.

The corporate battle over $3.3 billion in annual revenue is reportedly costing NHL owners $18 million to $20 million a day. (Kinda like the Phoenix Coyotes when they're actually playing games. Ahem.) The players, meanwhile, are in the process of forgoing between $1.5 billion and $1.8 billion in collective salary should cooler heads not prevail at the bargaining table.

Indeed, these are unsettling days: The players are wearing suits while the owners are filing them in U.S. courts.

There is a prevailing conventional wisdom that this work stoppage -- the fourth in the NHL in the last 20 years -- cannot last, simply because both sides cannot afford to let that happen. Neither players nor owners can possibly flush billions of dollars down the toilet again.

But consider this reverse perspective: Just last season, Jets defenceman Ron Hainsey, the team's union representative, earned a $4.5-million salary, an amount the average fan won't make in an entire lifetime. As a group, Hainsey and his teammates earned over $57 million last season alone -- and these guys didn't even make the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Jets co-owner David Thomson, the Third Baron of Fleet, is worth an estimated $22 billion, listed by Forbes as the 17th-richest person in the world. (Thomson's Jets, by comparison, were ranked 22nd in the NHL last season.)

What's the point? Contrary to the notion that neither players nor owners can afford a prolonged work stoppage, which would be a rational conclusion for most workaday mortals, it could be argued that these are EXACTLY the kind of folks who can squander such vast sums on principle.

Exhibit A: The recent Twitter photo of the Jets' young star Evander Kane, who signed a six-year deal reportedly worth $31.5 million just prior to the lockout, pretending to make a phone call using two thick stacks of cash as a phone receiver, all the while standing on a balcony of a Las Vegas hotel.

The mocking image, in light of the millions of dollars in lost salary by those mortals who rely on jobs related to the NHL -- restaurant employees, arena staff, etc. -- symbolized the "hardship" of Kane and his well-heeled brethren.

If the average NHL player made $2.4 million last year (and in many cases, the year before that), just how financially destitute must they be now? Remember, the NHL just lost an entire season in 2004-05, and once that unprecedented and enormously costly labour dispute ended, players' salaries proceeded to rise unabated. The league's annual revenue grew post-lockout from $2 billion to over $3 billion in just six years.

 

Sure, there are casualties, most notably fringe players who lose a season and never suit up for another NHL game. But the vast majority of players drew multimillion-dollar paycheques prior to the lockout and will continue to draw similar salaries when the dispute is inevitably settled. On the other side, billionaire owners are mostly divided into two camps: those for whom the loss of revenue is a pittance in their overall financial empires or those who lose less money (Phoenix, Florida, New York Islanders, Columbus, et al) when the arena lights are off.

Just as important, neither owners nor players could afford this sort of labour disruption without the confidence that the same revenue streams now being held hostage -- a.k.a. fans, corporate sponsors, TV viewers -- will continue to provide those billions of dollars when the puck drops again.

In other words, both players and owners are literally banking on the disenfranchised -- to whom they offer patronizing lip service -- to fatten their wallets again once they decide how to slice a $3.3-billion pie.

Contrast this travesty with another: A Canadian women's Olympic soccer team that had become the nation's darling of the 2012 London Games having their gold-medal dreams eviscerated by a foul-happy Norwegian referee in a heartbreaking 4-3 loss to Team USA in the semifinals.

Canadian Athlete of the Year Christine Sinclair scored three times against the Americans, but it wasn't enough to overcome several questionable calls by head referee Christina Pedersen, proving once again that of all the five rings in the Olympic symbol, not one of them stands for Smarter.

A crushed Sinclair vented: "We feel like we didn't lose; we feel like it was taken from us. It's a shame in a game like that, that was so important, the ref decided the result before it started."

Still, the demoralized Canadian squad, which included Winnipeg's own Desiree Scott, nicknamed The Destroyer, somehow managed to eke out a bronze with an upset 1-0 victory over France on an extra-time goal to capture the country's first medal in a traditional team sport since 1936.

The story of the Canadian women was inspiration in defeat.

The story of the NHL, players and owners, has been the defeat of inspiration.

Of course, our love affair with Olympians, the paupers of the sporting world, are fleeting and sporadic, just like the resentment currently felt toward NHL players who will be reviled today and revered again tomorrow.

Still, if there is any lasting damage for the NHL, it will not be measured in loss of revenue alone but the loss of previously unconditional love for a league-turned-corporation that has no ledger account for customer loyalty.

The Canadian women's soccer team courageously fought for gold, but captured bronze with honour.

Alas, fighting for gold in the NHL has an entirely different meaning.

To the spoiled go the riches.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

In a span of 48 hours, our nation went from anger and heartbreak to euphoria. The source of the emotional roller-coaster? The Canadian women's Olympic soccer team, led by goal-scoring machine, and now household name, Christine Sinclair. Their Olympic success, a bronze medal following the soul-shattering semifinal loss to the Americans, should be the key building block -- from grassroots to the international pitch -- for turning the team into a global power for years to come.

For 103 days and counting, a nation has gone from hope to frustration to resignation as the NHL lockout drags on. The boardroom is the playing field, team uniforms are business suits and the clock is ticking down on wiping out the whole season. The best and worst of sport is our national story of the year.

 

-- Scott Gibbons, associate editor

This is the Free Press choice for national story of the year. What is your choice?

Please send your opinion to

city.desk@freepress.mb.ca, with "story of year" in the slug line. We will publish a

selection of opinions later this week.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2012 B1

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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