Friday, September 27, 2019

Playing ‘what if?’ on the 25th anniversary of the 1994 lockout that changed the NHL

The hockey world has spent the last few weeks on a familiar topic for NHL fans: work stoppages. And for once, the news was mostly positive, as the NHL and NHLPA have decided not to end the current CBA early. That means we won’t have a lockout in 2020, although one could still happen two years later when the CBA expires as scheduled.

A 2022 work stoppage, if it came to that, would be the fourth of the Gary Bettman era. Just about all of us still have fresh memories of the 2012 lockout, which wiped out half a season. And we all know the story of the 2004 version, the most divisive and protracted in North American pro sports history. That lockout saw the owners win their ultimate goal of a hard salary cap while becoming the only league to cancel an entire season in the process.

But while the impact of those fights, both good and bad, are still being felt around the league to this day, the original NHL lockout seems to have largely been forgotten. That one came way back in 1994 when Bettman was in just the second year of his new job. It dragged into January 1995 and ultimately cost the league half a season. And in hindsight, it didn’t achieve all that much, with an eventual agreement that mostly retained the status quo. At the time, that deal was seen as a win for the owners, but it quickly became apparent that they hadn’t gained enough. As trilogies go, Part 1 of the NHL’s lockout series didn’t pack in much in the way of drama or major plot twists, but it did introduce the important themes and characters while setting the stage for the bigger productions come.

Next week will mark the 25th anniversary of the official start of the NHL’s first lockout. To celebrate, let’s look back on what happened a quarter-century ago, and how the league might look if things had played out differently. Here are five “what if” scenarios to ponder.

What if: The owners had held firm for a salary cap?

Let’s start with the big one. The owners headed into the 1994 negotiations looking to remake the league’s economic system. Bettman was hesitant to use the words “salary cap,” but he’d been hired two years earlier at least in part due to his role in helping the NBA create a cap system. It wasn’t hard to read the writing on the wall.

But any talk of a hard cap seemed to fade early in the negotiations, with the two sides instead focusing on a payroll tax. The league’s reported proposal was punitive enough – more than a dollar taxed for every dollar spent over a set limit – that Bob Goodenow and the NHLPA viewed it as all but a de facto hard cap, a scenario they weren’t interested in accepting. So the players sat back and waited for the owners to fold. Eventually, they did.

That came as a surprise to Bettman, who’d gone into the battle with assurances from his owners that they had his back and were prepared to strap in for a long fight. He’d certainly acted like a guy who was willing to play the villain, firing the first shot in August by unilaterally withdrawing some player benefits. The animosity between the sides got so bad that at one point, Chris Chelios even appeared to threaten Bettman’s safety, a moment for which he later apologized.

As the lockout dragged on and games were canceled for the first time in league history, the owners continued to put on a united front, even authorizing Bettman to cancel the entire season. But behind the scenes, that solidarity was crumbling. (For a more in-depth look at the politics of the 1994 lockout, I highly recommend “The Instigator,” Jonathon Gatehouse’s must-read look at Bettman’s tenure.) It eventually became clear that Goodenow and the players weren’t going to cave, and the league’s richer teams began to wonder if losing an entire season was really worth it. The players had offered a handful of concessions, including a rookie salary cap. With the deadline to cancel the season looming, the owners decided that those small wins were enough.

What if they hadn’t? What if the owners had remained united behind Bettman? Or maybe more realistically, what if Bettman had done a better job of making sure that his owners had no choice? The commissioner learned a tough lesson from the 1994 lockout, and made sure that he went into the 2004 version with more power and less vulnerability to his owners getting cold feet. What would have happened if he’d been able to get his charges to hold the line in 1994 instead?

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