2012 NHL Lockout: On Players As Cattle

May 31, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch talks about prize steer Nicklas Lidstrom during a press conference announcing the retirement of Lidstrom at Joe Louis Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Jimmy Devellano has been fined a hefty amount by the league for saying what's on a lot of owners' minds -- players are cattle.

At the heart of all these remarks is contempt, which is why we could be in for a long haul.

Yes, they are billionaires. Good on them, they deserve it, but they also make their employees millionaires. Not a bad trade off for a guy like Lucic getting what, 6 million dollars a year? I mean good on him too, but he should be grateful. Understand though that these players want for nothing...its first class this, first class that, meal allowances, travel money on the road, the whole shebang. Offer sheets don't hurt the players one bit."

To sum up: billionaires deserve their money but the players don't. Owners earned it; players are just dumb lucky.

Missing from this analogy is some kind of acknowledgment that the NHL, like all professional sports, is in the entertainment business. The players are not only employees, they are the product. They logged countless hours over the course of their lives to achieve mastery in a contest that other people will pay money to see. People are willing to pay more for NHL merchandise and tickets than they are to watch minor league or junior hockey because the NHL has the very best in the sport. The league's marketing machine is centered around individual personalities. Datsyuk is Datsyuk. You cannot swap out one highly trained cow for any old calf.

Devellano veers into complaining about how great these lucky cows have it with their first class pampering, without mentioning why owners offer it in the first place. Mike Ilitch wants the Red Wings to be known as a first class organization. He wants the players to have the best of everything not only so they will perform well, but to be attractive to the best talent. Behind every team that's complaining about offering extras to players (as Bettman cites the soaring costs of masseuses) is a billionaire who made his own choice to do it because he wanted a competitive edge.

It's great for the team if it helps get Nick Lidstrom to take less than market value to stay. It's not so great when you need to paint the owners as hard done by.

Missing some respect

Much as this is players vs. owners, individually, the Wings have nothing but respect for their employer, Mike Ilitch. "Listen, we have the best owner in sports," Cleary said, "and as a group of guys, nobody loves our owner more than this club, that's for sure."

Maybe a fundamental problem here is that the players think they have a relationship with the guys who run their teams. Cleary loves Ilitch. Ilitch loves his ranch.

At the core of these negotiations is a widespread feeling that the owners hold the players in contempt. It's certainly a sentiment that runs through Devellano's remarks. And that's slowing things down instead of speeding them up.

The owners know there's a power imbalance here -- that's why every proposal on both sides has shifted hundreds of millions their way. They don't have to respect the players because they are certain another year long lockout will crush them. Articles are written every day about how the players should just accept the inevitable 50/50 split--the owners' goal all along--and maybe they will get some concessions on contract length in return. I don't think that's how it's going to play out. The owners, as they see it, have no reason to play give an take. Not with the cattle.

But even for the men with the most power, persuasion would be the best course. Another lockout would damage the league's growth as a whole. Unlike last time, most fans don't believe this lockout is a necessary evil. Contrary to Devellano's belief, fans are saying plenty of bad things about the owners.

So if you can't respect the players, at least act like it. There's no Levitt report this time. When asked to make an economic case, don't stamp your feet and cry "How dare you!" Yes, you are businessmen. Great. Recognize that the players have some pride and work to ease the mistrust. There's a lot of room for owners to slip a velvet glove over the iron fist, and still get the vast majority of what they want.

That is, if someone who runs this league could have an ounce of big-picture thinking.

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