Twenty years ago this month, NHL fans had plenty to talk about. Training camps were set to open. The New York Rangers were getting ready to raise the banner on their first Stanley Cup title in 54 years. And hockey fans were about to get their first taste of what would become the league’s trademark over the next two decades: an extended, season-disrupting work stoppage that would alienate fans and change the way the game was played, both on and off the ice.
Granted, compared to what we now know was to come, the 1994 lockout could be viewed as just a warning shot, and in the years since it’s been largely forgotten. But back then, as the September days ticked past and the unthinkable slowly turned into the inevitable, it was unlike anything hockey fans had ever seen before. And the dispute set the stage for Rounds 2 and 3 and beyond, as one side would eventually suffer an embarrassing loss that it swore it would never repeat.
As the calendar flipped over to September 1994, the players and owners were clearly headed toward some sort of labor showdown. The league’s collective bargaining agreement had expired, and the owners refused to play out the season without a new one, arguing that doing so would leave them vulnerable to a midseason strike that could wipe out the remainder of the year. That concern wasn’t unreasonable, considering that Major League Baseball was just days away from canceling the World Series because of just such a stoppage.
The NHL had gone through labor disputes before, including a 10-day player strike in 1992 that briefly threatened that year’s playoffs.1 But the 1994 dispute was something altogether different. This time it was the owners who were threatening to shut the game down, while loudly threatening they were willing to miss extended time to get the right deal. More importantly, they were doing it all under the leadership of a fresh-faced, new commissioner who’d assured them victory: Gary Bettman.
Bettman had been hired in December 1992, partly as a response to that year’s strike.2 He came over from the NBA with a reputation as one of the sports world’s smartest and most ambitious young executives. His NHL mandate: aggressive expansion, a new American TV deal, a focus on growth (especially in the southern U.S.), and lasting labor peace … under the owners’ terms, of course.
Those terms, it was widely assumed, would include some sort of salary cap.3 In a move that would become familiar to hockey fans a decade later, Bettman himself refused to call it that, insisting that the owners’ proposal was merely a tax plan, but the result would have been essentially the same. The players, under the leadership of Bob Goodenow, were open to a small tax, but preferred that the league achieve the bulk of its financial goals through revenue sharing instead. With the owners insisting that rising salaries and growing financial disparity between teams necessitated a hard line, there was talk the entire season could be at stake. This work stoppage, we were warned, could be The Big One.
The owners’ stance didn’t come without risk. The potential opportunity cost was enormous; not only had the baseball strike given the NHL a chance to start the season without any competition from the Fall Classic, but the league was still riding high off an exciting season that culminated with the Rangers’ dramatic Cup win. The positive buzz was so strong that there was talk of the NHL actually threatening the NBA as America’s third-most popular sport.4 With the sort of momentum the league had been chasing for a generation finally behind it, it seemed like the worst possible timing for an extended work stoppage.
Despite that, it quickly became clear the situation was dire. Bettman had actually fired the first shot in August, unilaterally withdrawing several player benefits in a move the owners claimed was meant to spur negotiations. While talks had indeed resumed in August, the move served to unify the players against the owners and their new commissioner. Those bad feelings eventually culminated in a memorable Chris Chelios rant in which he appeared to threaten Bettman’s safety.5
In an odd twist from the league’s future lockouts, the 1994 dispute didn’t prevent the start of training camps. Players reported in mid-September as scheduled, and the exhibition schedule was played. But as the countdown toward opening night continued, any chatter around line combinations or rookie debuts was quickly replaced by lockout talk. As camp wore on, the usual battles for lineup spots began to feel futile.
After weeks of stalled negotiations and sniping in the media, the inevitable became official on October 1, 1994, as Bettman announced that the season would not begin as scheduled. The usual script was followed, with the owners expressing their ever-so-sincere regret and the players swearing they were united. The first batch of games was officially canceled three weeks later, with more to follow as the lockout wore on. At one point, the players considered retaliating by reducing that year’s playoffs. Of course, that would require that the playoffs were actually played; that possibility seemed less and less certain as the weeks passed.