Frozen Rubber And Horsehide

For those of you who do not know, I’ll come out of the closet — I am a Canadian, eh. As such, I’m an avowed puck head. Therefore I’m in quite a state over the lack of an NHL season; not to mention being deprived of the opportunity to rend my garments, dress up in sackcloth, put ashes on my head and mope around miserable for a month after the only cup the Toronto Maple Leafs end up dealing with is the one you sink a Titlest into.

But I digress.

This is a baseball column, and I’m sure you don’t want to hear me whine about my lack of a hockey fix and the inability to indulge in my own particular form of masochism. Regardless, I can’t help but wonder what effect the whole NHL fiasco will have on MLB. In the short term, opportunity is knocking for the Blue Jays. They have the Toronto market (indeed all of Canada) all to themselves this spring as Mats Sundin will be unable to transfix Toronto’s attention on the subtle nuances of the dump and chase tactic that he uses to save up energy so he’ll be fresh to play for Team Sweden in the World Cup.

O.K. O.K. … enough bitterness.

Seriously though, it’s a golden opportunity for Toronto to grab back some of their marketplace that they lost after the baseball strike of 1994. Hopefully excited hordes will flock to SkyDome/Rogers Centre to take in the wonders of Shea Hillenbrand and Scot Schoenweis.

Suddenly the dump and chasing Sundin doesn’t look so bad.

(bangs head repeatedly on desk)

J.P. J.P., why hast thou forsaken me?

I’ll stop bellyaching (for now). I’m doing a team preview of the Blue Jays later this month and I’ll save up my invective, biting sarcasm, flames, frustration and general self-pity for then. This is a column about how the NHL lockout may effect the future of MLB, and I’d best get to it.

(bangs head on desk one last time for good measure)

O.K., I’m ready now.

When sports fans think of labor fiascos they generally think of Major League Baseball — after all, baseball holds the top two spots for longest strikes (the NHL is involved in a lockout not a strike) and until this year, was the only major sport to lose its playoffs. Hockey’s disaster is now a laboratory for Bud Selig, the owners, Don Fehr, and the MLBPA. They’re going to see firsthand what happens when a whole season AND its playoffs are lost. They’re going to see how difficult it is in minor markets to win fans back. They’re going to see how difficult it is to win back lost sponsors and deal with a significantly shrunken revenue pie.

Chances are good, they’ll see how contraction works at the major league level.

Will there be contraction in the NHL? Well for me, the biggest fallout from the last baseball strike was the loss of the Montreal Expos. A lot of things went into the Expos demise, but the strike of 1994 was the last nail in the coffin — the Expos never completely recovered from that blow.

A lot of NHL clubs in the U.S. are in similar straits as the Expos were in 1994; struggling along trying to generate interest, succeeding somewhat if the team was successful, but needing stability and continuity to build on a base. The destabilizing effect of the strike of 1994 permanently knocked the Expos off their moorings, and I think the lockout will have the exact same effect on a lot of Sun Belt NHL clubs. Just as 1994 stalled a groundswell for the Montreal Expos, the lockout completely derailed whatever business momentum the Tampa Bay Lightning generated from their winning of the Stanley Cup. I can’t see NHL fans coming back in places like Phoenix, Nashville, Miami, Carolina, and Atlanta after they‘ve become used to spending their entertainment dollar elsewhere — yet alone selling sponsorships there. The same threat hangs over baseball markets like Tampa Bay, Miami, Toronto and Arizona — yes, they love baseball, but would the loss of an entire season cause those marketplaces to become used to spending their disposable income elsewhere?

When baseball’s last collective bargaining agreement was signed, the MLBPA signed off on contraction which will be used as a huge bargaining chip against the MLBPA. You can bet Bud Selig will be watching closely to see how a contraction draft is handled and whether or not an arbitrator will allow it or simply make the affected players free agents. I think the NHLPA is toast. There will be a salary cap in the NHL, leaving major league baseball as the only major sport without one. Selig will see the short and long term costs of breaking a union to achieve a salary cap. Conversely, Don Fehr will watch closely whether fighting a salary cap will be worth the lost wages of his constituents both over the short and long haul. The NHL players have lost an entire year’s salary, and when they finally return, they’ll likely have to play under a system where they receive 50-55% of a revenue pie that is 50% lower than it was when they were locked out.

My guess is that the next round of bargaining in MLB will be pretty simple: the owners will offer not to contract in exchange for the MLBPA’s acceptance of a hard salary cap. The question is — how long will each side dig in to achieve its ends? Ideally, the players’ position will be no contraction and no salary cap. Will they be willing to forego an entire year’s salary and accept the lower salaries that will result from the lower revenues that baseball will generate in the aftermath of a season-plus stoppage with no guarantee they’ll fend off the dreaded cap?

Something for both sides to consider is that the NHL will likely try to declare a bargaining impasse and implement its own work rules. The NLRB and the courts are more favourable for management now under Republican George W. Bush than it was in 1994 under Democrat Bill Clinton when MLB‘s application for impasse was declined. If the NHL declares impasse and impasse is granted, you can bet that Selig and company will stand up and take notice.

The NHL is giving MLB the opportunity to see the true stakes of labor roulette. Baseball has had the start of a season aborted. It’s had chunks taken out of the regular season, it has lost the end of seasons, but it’s yet to do an NHL Full Monty — wipe out the whole thing and see what happens. Granted, baseball has a few advantages over hockey: it’s the national pastime in the U.S. just as hockey is up here in the Great White North. Despite what the doomsayers south of the 49th may say — this disaster will not kill the NHL as long as Canada is on the map. The same can be said about MLB — it will never die in the U.S.A.

Of course, just because it can’t be killed doesn’t mean that it cannot suffer significant injury.

Once things are settled in the NHL and the damages assessed, each side will have to wonder if their principles are worth the losses suffered. Even if the NHLPA achieves a best case scenario: a deal minus a salary cap, they’ll have to wonder whether it was worth the lost salaries, smaller pay checks and lost union jobs. If they end up with a worst-case scenario: lost salaries, smaller pay checks, lost union jobs, and being forced to play in a system that is far worse than the one they turned down before the 2004-05 season was cancelled — they‘ll have to wonder if their “principles” were worth hurting their (and future players‘) earning potential. Will they say “Well, we fought the fine fight and we‘d do it again,” or will they say “Oh crap, we really messed up a good thing.”?

The owners will have to wonder if the lost revenues from the lockout, permanently lost sponsorships, being relegated to a non “major sport,” lost marketplaces, lost credibility, the inability to get a national TV contract, possible lawsuits from communities that financed now empty arenas, and losing some terrific international talent which may decide to work in their home countries instead of playing in North America was too high a price to pay for breaking a union.

You may think this column is premature, but think: The full damage from the NHL lockout will not be fully assessed for a few years yet — right about the time MLB’s current collective bargaining agreement expires. In short, both sides will go into the negotiation knowing the stakes of another labor stare down/smack down. They’ll see the damage. They’ll see what’s at stake, and hopefully sanity once again will prevail.

I’m saddened by what’s happened to the NHL, but maybe the cloud in the silver lining is this — it might vividly demonstrate to ownership and the MLBPA that partnership is far more lucrative than the labor battles of the past; and maybe it’ll mean that we can be assured of 162 game seasons for a long, long time.

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