Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fans paying for NHL's greed

Owners, players bank on customers' loyalty

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It's beginning to look like they're not going to play. And for the next couple of months, until the loss of millions of dollars begins to bang them in the head with all the subtlety of an angry frying pan and forces an accord, we're going to have to listen to sickening propaganda.

Grab a handy receptacle. You'll need it.

Millionaire hockey players posing as union brothers fighting for a fair shake one day and then tweeting about their partying in Las Vegas the next.

Owners responsible for deals such as Shea Weber's $110-million piece of circumvention will talk about needing cost certainty.

Agents will chime in. Media will take sides.

It's gonna be rich, folks. Get ready to gag.

The NHL is a $3-billion business. The 700 or so players who make up the league receive an average salary of $2.6 million. The Toronto Maple Leafs have annual profits that flirt with the $80-million mark. The league is so confident in its product and its future it is willing to risk a second lengthy work stoppage in less than a decade.

The owners want us to believe the business model is broken just weeks after watching small-market Minnesota spend almost $200 million on two players.

The players are almost all millionaires now, with fourth-liners the likes of Tanner Glass converting four-goal seasons into a seven-figure salary.

There's enough money to go around but the two sides can't agree on how to share it.

Who is to blame?

Everyone. Including you, the fans.

We've given them the hammer, you see. Both sides are confident in whatever decisions they make right now because they know the money pot will never go away. Owners will continue to raise ticket prices and charge more for merchandise and concessions. Players will continue to get paid more and more.

All because you, the eternal sucker, will keep forking over the cash to support them.

The players argue there is no game without them. Wrong. They can and are replaced on a yearly basis.

The owners argue there is no game without them. Wrong. They can be replaced, as Gary Bettman has proven by talking new money into Phoenix and Tampa and Nashville, etc.

The fans? Their money is the one true irreplaceable part of the equation. Take the ticket-buying public's cash away and there is no NHL. No millionaire hockey players. No billionaire owners whining about the cost of owning the most coveted toy in the world.

We sometimes believe what we want to believe. When owners and players tell us how important the fans are and how they couldn't do it without them, we buy in.

We shouldn't. Most owners and most players can't care about the fans. If they did, they wouldn't be doing what they're doing to fans right now. Actions speak loudest and turning the game off is the loudest action of all. It screams we (owners and players) don't care about you (fans).

The owners will feel the pinch of declining revenue once games are officially cancelled. Here in Winnipeg, where the Jets are a real business with a functioning economic model, the hurt will be substantial. Maybe in Columbus or Phoenix or Florida where the operations bleed cash, the loss of games won't be such a blow. Player salaries are the biggest cost in all NHL markets and some clubs will welcome not having to meet payroll in late October.

The players have a war chest to get them through, according to one powerful agent, at least 12 months of no paycheques. Some will travel overseas and bump other pro players out of jobs so they can keep gas in their Bentleys.

Owners will lay off staff and trim costs to weather the storm.

This is what professional sports is all about in today's age. Money rules the day. It's more important than character, integrity and the simple test of what is right.

The Winnipeg Jets playing host to the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 13 to kick off the regular season in front of a sold-out barn in our downtown is what is right. Anything short of that is unacceptable.

Except it's not. When the game returns, and it will, you'll be in your spot, paying the freight.

The players and the owners are banking on it.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2012 D1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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