This is a Garage League and Other Lockout Lessons

Ted Leonsis

I guess it’s appropriate to start by saying that we’re all unimaginably happy about the return of hockey. That said, we’ve learned a lot over the four-month lockout, and this seems like the appropriate time to take stock.

Lesson 1: Mario Lemieux was right

The NHL is a garage league. I’m not talking about riff-raff players spoiling up the staid finesse hockey of a bygone era; I’m talking about business competence. Since my adolescence, the NHL has lost part or all of three seasons. Fans who have been following hockey for a decade have seen 20% of that time obscured or obliterated by lockouts.

Imagine running a business where you do work 80% of the time. The rest of the time you’re struggling to master a skill most functionally social humans learn in kindergarten: sharing. Your business plan is flawed.

The last lockout saw the NHL exiled to cable wilderness, almost literally. In an effort to limit salary expenses, the NHL ended up limiting their TV exposure for years, which had to have an appreciable effect on revenue. Revenue-sharing was at the heart of this lockout, so in some ways this lockout was just an extension of that one.

Or perhaps it’s an extension of expansion. We know many teams– particularly expansion teams– are drowning in red ink. Columbus and Phoenix have solubility problems. Nashville would be in dire trouble too if they weren’t such a good hockey team with a surging fan base. These teams exist because the NHL saw fit to spread itself into non-traditional (read: not northeast US and Canada) markets, but those teams have always struggled. Phoenix for a time was underwritten by the league itself.

I propose that the friction between established teams and small-market teams had as much to do with this lockout as friction between owners and players. In fact, the PA’s negotiating strategy initially tried to wedge the two apart. It seems hard to defend expansion as a business strategy when you consider a) the league has had to bail these teams out, b) the gap between small teams and big teams underpinned many of the NHL’s concerns in the lockout, and c) it’s ice hockey in the freaking desert– how is that a good idea?

I guess what I’m trying to say is: Gary Bettman is not good at his job. Feel free to agree or disagree.

Lesson 2: DC is not a hockeytown

Or at least, it isn’t right now. Flashback to April 2012: the Caps had captured the city’s imagination with a gritty style of hockey. The city’s football team was atrocious and without a good draft position. The city’s baseball team was plagued by injury and youth. The city’s soccer team had missed the playoffs a few years in a row. The city’s basketball team was a disgrace.

Since then, Dan Snyder made some deals to draft Robert Griffin III second overall, and RG3 then vaulted the team to an NFC East Championship. The Nationals were fantastic and made the playoffs (so did Baltimore, nyah nyah). Under coach Ben Olsen, DC United had its best year since they won  the MLS Championship in 2007. The city’s basketball team is still a disgrace.

The stack ranking of DC sports has flipped. It seems for now that the Washington Capitals’ moment has passed. It can certainly be recaptured, but right now we’re taking stock and that stock has definitely dropped.

Part of that is Ted Leonsis’ fault. The Capitals owner was listed among the league’s so-called hardliners spurring the stubbornness that led to breakdowns during negotiations. Unfortunately, Ted probably can’t comment on the CBA or his characterization as a holdout. When he talked about the NBA salary cap in September of 2010, Leonsis was fined $100,000. He’s not really in a position to defend himself, which is fine, because we’re not really in a position to give him a hard time about it. After all, he did keep the Capitals staff on payroll for the duration of the lockout.

Leonsis has the benefit of the doubt. Up until now (and excluding the Jagr era), he’s been a good owner for the fans. This is now his opportunity to reconcile with a community that has cooled towards him.

Lesson 3: Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dale Hunter were right to leave

Throughout 2012, Evgeny Kuznetsov vacillated over playing in the NHL or staying in the KHL. His new marriage and the upcoming Sochi olympics probably factored in to his eventual decision to stay in Russia for two more years, but the loss of half this NHL season makes that choice even more prescient. We’re no longer inclined to criticize a player for making a business decision that has worked out great for him so far.

Same goes with Dale Hunter, a coach for whom I had no shortage of criticism last season. Hunter chose to leave the Caps after just one partial season as head coach. He’s back in Ontario, coaching a team he also owns, which plays in a league that doesn’t implode every 7-10 years. However we disagreed with his coaching tactics, Hunter’s choice was the smart one for him, his family, and his farm. Even Bourne agrees.

Lesson 4: There was a cost

As The Washington Post’s Katie Carrera wrote last month, the lockout has been devastating to businesses near Verizon Center. The end of the lockout will come as great news to the Penn Quarter/Chinatown neighborhood, who rely on the collective thirst and hunger of Caps fans to pay their bills. Here’s hoping all our favorite joints can staff up in the coming weeks.

Same for the workers at Verizon Center, who lost hours due to the lockout.

Then there’s the marginal players who couldn’t make a pro roster once the ranks got crowded with eligible NHL players.

And don’t forget the esteemed hockey writers who had to lower themselves to menial and demeaning tasks like writing about football just to fill up the hours.

There’s lots of people with jobs related directly or tangentially to the Caps, and most of them had a leaner Christmas than usual because of the lockout.

It’ll take time for the coffers to fill and the wounds to heal, but it will require a spirit of reconciliation for that to happen. That’s why I’m not supporting any kind of boycott. Just the opposite actually: I want to go to Iron Horse and Clyde’s and Rocket Bar and scarf down a ton of food and a few too many adult beverages. I want to tip the good workers at Verizon Center and tell them how glad I am to see them again.

And I harbor no hard feelings towards Evgeny Kuznetsov or Dale Hunter for making the right choices for their careers and their families.

And I hold no grudge against Ted Leonsis for whatever role he played in the lockout. He’s got a sterling record of fan outreach, and I bet that will continue.

Gary Bettman, on the other hand? Well, let’s just say that when the Stanley Cup Finals arrive, I’ll be joining in on this tradition:

Alright, that’s my piece. What did you learn from the lockout? What did I get wrong?

  • http://twitter.com/pthread Jim Kelly

    Well said.

  • Guest

    Well said across the board. I’m glad to see a more serious post, instead of a tongue-in-cheek post.

  • joecct

    Stay on the concourse for the 1st period of the 1st game @ the Verizon Center. Send a message to all that the fans will not be trifled with. Does not hurt the concession workers, ticket takers, etc. But the image on TV (unless Comcast photoshops fans) will say it all.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Thanks. We’ll have more of both coming up.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Now that’s a provocative idea!

  • breaklance

    There was too much ugliness these past few months for me to warrant going to a game, but I’ll certainly watch. And subsequently rock back and forth in a fetal position crying because Nicky and Dima were hurt playing somewhere other than with the Caps.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=692356341 Matt Mendelsohn

    This morning at 5:45 a.m. (on a Sunday, no less), a bunch of nine and ten-year-old girls gathered at Kettler, home of the Caps, to play a hockey game. it was significant because Kettler now has an all-girls program and this was Game #1. As we proudly hung the jerseys of this fledgling team in the locker room, I looked at my daughter’s jersey number: 22, as always, for Mike Knuble. About two minutes later, a fellow parent showed me the breaking news on his phone–the lockout was over.

    I’m ecstatic to watch the Caps again, but as a family we won’t forget how crappily the Caps and Dale Hunter treated Mike last season. The whole sham of honoring him for playing 1,000 games, all while kicking him out the door. We can’t wait for January 15th, but we lost a little bit of respect for the organization during this long, long off-season. And I know this is a point of insignificance for many fans, but for us not so much.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Yeah, I agree. I didn’t like how they (including Bruce at the end of his time) treated 22. I know how loved he is around Kettler; thanks for sharing that.

    Do you know what Knuble is up to now?

  • WestCoastCapsFan

    Lesson #3: Those other people.living in my apartment are my wife and children and they actually have names…

  • http://www.facebook.com/8dorito Brendan Whalen

    No, I don’t want NHL back yet, at least wait until after the AHL Outdoor Classic :(
    We will lose Holtby, which will give the Pens a better chance at beating us, when Holtby is definitely our star goalie when facing Wilkes-Barre. The last thing I want is for them to avenge Pittsburgh’s loss.

  • http://twitter.com/47shots Александр

    Thanks for the post!
    As I’m living far away from DC, I don’t know sports situation in the city, but I defenitely agree with all the other points.
    What should happen to force the Bettman’s era end?
    I’d love to see Kuzya in Caps roster this season, but now time showed us he made good decision for himself.
    Well, let’s hope that was the last NHL lockout we have to face.

  • Michelle

    I’ve been thinking about it this morning: what about the affect of social media in the lockout this time around? Do you think it allowed more fans (and players) to express their anger? And maybe that helped light a fire under the league and PA’s a****? But maybe i’m giving the fans too much credit. Maybe there was simply more money at stake this time around. Ha!

    Good post! I agree about refraining from boycotting.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    I wonder the same thing about social media.

    From what I can tell, there’s a huge selection bias in social media. People see the things they choose to see (by liking or following), so I’m not sure how representative those samples are.

    Even hashtags on twitter represent a tiny portion of general NHL fans that is high-resolution I’m not sure it’s informative.

    I did hear that sponsors (Molson, anyone?) were clamoring for a resolution.

  • TO

    Granted I learned a lot of this from LeBrun’s ESPN column, but the NHL really shot itself in the foot with the financial sponsors, most notably the network TV deals. As much as we want to see this through the Caps filter, how can we sit here and sarcastically mock ESPN for not showing hockey highlights or hockey games when the league itself can’t even put games on TV? The damage to the game won’t be during this upcoming season when the league tries to apologize to alienated fans, it will come in 2013 and 2014 when there are no sponsors and no one is going to pay more than $50 for a TV deal with the NHL. We’ll have to watch Caps games on the CW, and the lack of revenue from everything the PA and Owners did to themselves will culminate with another lockout in 8 years, because none of the “expected revenue” they negotiated during this lockout will be there.

  • Andrew

    Ted was a terrible owner before. He’s a terrible owner now. So, nothing has changed there.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    I always thought ESPN treated the NHL like scum AFTER they chose not to license NHL’s content. It’s like– since they didn’t get ad dollars for airing the sport, they might as well marginalize it.

    I could be wrong.

  • Hale

    I’ll never think as highly of Ted as I once did. His past words about loving hockey and building the hockey capital just ring hollow.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    But he’s sorta screwed since he can’t defend himself without getting fined for commenting on the CBA. I have to give him some leniency for that. I’m also eager to see what he and Monumental will do to reach out to fans.

  • http://twitter.com/Rogbo64 Rogbo64

    Dang, 210 days of sobriety shot to heck! Dating way back to June 10, 2012. Thank Ga-Wa-Da we have hockey and Schlitz again!

  • Heidi

    He’s in Michigan coaching/watching his son. I have friends whose son plays in the same league and they recently saw him at a tournament in Detroit.

  • KatieLyn7337

    While I agree with Lesson 2, I think some of the drop off has to do with the fact that there was no hockey and not because D.C isn’t a hockey town. Of course if there’s nothing to watch interest is going to die off. It especially helped that the lockout started right about the time football began. I know that for me the football season has given me a sports fix. I’d rather watch hockey, don’t get me wrong, but with no other alternative I watched football to pass the time and naturally became interested in the sport.

    Just my two cents. As always, great post. =)

  • Catherine

    I’m not totally with you on “no boycott”. I am not a season ticket holder (though was entertaining a proposal to buy into a shared package this summer), so maybe my persective is different but I cannot imagine willingly giving the league or Ted a penny of my money ever again. Sadly, those $8 beers and $10 burgers are all profit for Ted. Leave some cash in the tip jar if you feel for the workers but fill up at area establishments who appreciate your patronage, not spit on it.

    Me myself? Not going in on the tickets. Not worth it after this. If I go to a game in person (huge if at this point, I have a hard time picturing having fun at one), it’ll be on tickets own at my local pub trivia or given my one of my STH friends. And I wouldn’t be able to choke down a beer if I tried. What I *will* do is watch the games at my local pub, which does not take my busniess for granted, is far more reasonably priced and doesn’t line the pockets of someone who is willing to ruin hockey for everyone.

  • Rhino40

    What did I get wrong?

    Not a thing Peter. Not one. Damn. Thing.

    In fact, this is one of your best yet, and that’s saying something.

    So when we MAKE PAЯTY again?

    Peace,

    Das Rhino

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Awesome. Thanks for the report! I hope he gets a phone call in the next few days.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Haha. Thanks.

    I’ll let you know about party time.

  • http://twitter.com/donut_shack Matt

    Respectfully disagree with a couple points:

    “He’s not really in a position to defend himself, which is fine, because we’re not really in a position to give him a hard time about it.” That statement is absolutely wrong in my opinion. Who then to hold the team/owners accountable if not the fans? Stakeholders shouldn’t pass that buck because the League wants to control the public message.

    “Leonsis has the benefit of the doubt.” Again, just wrong in my opinion. Ted (and Monumental S&E) get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to team operations and personnel decisions, but duch does not extend to league operations. They don’t and cannot be given a pass for enabling (if such is accurate) the League to push to the brink of another (completely) lost season.

    As a fan, I would love nothing more than to read a message from ownership describing why they chose the position they did, and what their role was in the lockout. Accountability through transparency. A message all owners should abide.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    Thanks.

    I’d love to hear his side of the story and read a statement from him, but I don’t think we’ll get it because of the rules against it. And you’re right that Monumental is accountable in some respects to fans, but I think their accountability to stakeholders is stronger.

    I’m not trying to quash criticism, but I don’t think that we can have a fair discussion about it if the person in question can’t actually speak for himself substantively.

    Anyway, good points.

  • Rhino40

    Note to NHL: Peter Hassett for Commissioner. Get it done.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    I not-at-all-humbly accept this job offer. Now help me swim in my money bin.

  • serpent

    Oh, yeah!! Along with ian and the Bunch, he could turn this NHL into a legitimate entity in the sporting world instead of the class clown Bettman’s made it.