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For the second time in seven years, workers in Canada and the northern United States have been deprived of a much-needed respite from a long cold winter.  The owners of the 30 National Hockey League (NHL) teams have imposed a lock-out, demanding that players receive a much smaller piece of league revenues.  A battle between multi-billionaire owners and multi-millionaire players may, on the surface, seem to be a trivial issue — especially when so many workers are losing their jobs or living paycheque-to-paycheque.  But, hockey plays a vital role in the life of workers in Canada and, indeed, this particular lockout has many of the same hallmarks of the bosses’ offensive against other workers.

Aside from the vital role that hockey plays in the lives of millions, particularly in Canada, adopting a cavalier or dismissive view of the NHL lockout only helps to serve the interests of the greedy NHL owners, as well as ignores the way in which we can fight the corporatization of the game and reclaim it as our own.

What is the NHL lockout really about?

This year’s lockout will be the third lockout by the National Hockey League in 18 years.  In fact, the NHL has lost more games to labour disputes over the same period than the other three major professional sports leagues in North America combined.

In the last lockout, which ended up wiping away the entire 2004-05 NHL season, the owners eventually forced the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) to concede on the issue of a salary cap — each team would have a set amount of money that it could spend on players’ salaries, equal to 57% of hockey-related revenue across the league.  In theory, this meant that players’ salaries could be limited and the owners’ profit margins preserved.

In this round of collective bargaining, the owners have gone back to the players claiming the need for new concessions on the players’ part in order to make the teams more financially viable.  This is despite the fact that during the course of the present collective agreement, the league as a whole enjoyed record increases in attendance and record levels of revenue.  On average, the NHL has enjoyed an annual increase of 7.2% in revenues — going from $2.1-billion in 2005 to $3.3-billion today.

The initial offer presented by the owners to the NHLPA would have seen a drastic curtailment of the players’ current standards.  In terms of salary, the NHL was seeking to reduce the players’ share of hockey-related revenue (HRR) from the current 57% down to 43%.  Furthermore, the owners were demanding to redefine what constituted HRR, further reducing the amount left for the players.  NHLPA director, Donald Fehr, estimated that this alone constituted at least a 24% cut in salary to most players.

Furthermore, the NHL’s initial offer would have acutely attacked players’ rights in determining where they play, and how they are able to negotiate new contracts during their career.  The offer would have almost completely curtailed a player’s right to salary arbitration in the event a player could not agree to a new contract with their team.  Moreover, the amount of time that a player would need to play before they qualified for unrestricted free agency (i.e. the ability to sign with any team they choose) would be drastically increased — tying players to their current teams and limiting their ability to negotiate new contracts during the most productive years of their careers.

The only way to view the owners’ offer is that they wish to humiliate the players and are looking to drive the NHLPA into the ground.  This is not nearly as far-fetched as it may seem if we look into who makes up the brotherhood of owners in the NHL.

In a recent article, Canada’s Globe and Mail pointed out that NHL owners are particularly well-known for their anti-union stance — even more-so than owners in the other major professional North American sports leagues.  For example, both the owners of the Los Angeles Kings and the Philadelphia Flyers have invested heavily in the Republican Party, as well as to centres and think-tanks associated with right-wing ideologue Ayn Rand.  In fact, both owners have held (or currently hold) the movie rights to her book, Atlas Shrugged.  The Minnesota Wild’s owner, Craig Leipold, is a long-time donor to Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, both of whom are Tea Party darlings and some of the biggest enemies of the labour movement in the USA.  One of the St. Louis Blues’ co-owners, a former Republican senator, is the chairman of Enterprise Rent-a-Car, a company that was accused of union-busting in 2007 after workers in Boston voted to organize.  And the list goes on.

As we have seen in the labour struggles that are going on in the United States at the moment, these people have a visceral anti-union stance and want nothing more than to destroy the ability of workers to organize.  Even though hockey players may be multi-millionaires, their hatred of parting with profit extends to their NHL properties, as well.  In their view, the players need to be sent a message that any opposition to their control must be stopped.

The owners, unanimously, have rejected any suggestions made by the NHLPA to introduce meaningful revenue-sharing, ensuring that so-called “small-market” teams are on a similar competitive basis as their larger brethren.  The owners repeatedly have insisted that the only measure that will aid “ailing” teams is reducing the players’ share of revenue.  Revenue-sharing is a common feature in some of the other professional sports leagues, such as in Major League Baseball and in the National Football League.

But even these claims of poverty by certain teams cannot be taken at face value, especially when we dig a little deeper.  The Phoenix Coyotes, for example, are held up as one of the model franchises that need assistance, estimated to be losing anywhere between $35-50-million every season.  The situation has supposedly gotten so bad that the NHL is now left to actually own the team.  However, this did not stop the league-owned Coyotes from authorizing the highly questionable re-signing of Shane Doan, a 35-year old player on the decline, to a ridiculous four-year deal worth $21.2-million minutes before the current lockout began!  Furthermore, the league has blocked the team’s re-location from the hot Arizona desert (where it is doubtful that a single flake of snow has ever fallen) to a potentially more fruitful location (say, wintery Quebec City or Hamilton) for fears that it would jeopardize the league’s US footprint when it comes time to negotiate US television deals.

The cries of poverty become even more laughable when one looks at some of the wealthiest teams in the league who are also demanding massive concessions from the part of the players.  One of those teams is the Toronto Maple Leafs, estimated to be worth over half-a-billion dollars by Forbes magazine in 2011.  Reliable profit margins for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), the company that owns the Toronto Maple Leafs, are hard to come by because of all of the different properties that they own.  Aside from the NHL’s Maple Leafs, they also own a minor-league hockey team, a professional basketball team, a professional soccer team, two TV stations, a 19,000-seat arena, the operating rights to Ricoh Coliseum and BMO Field in Toronto, two hotel/condo towers, their own sporting goods store, a fine-dining restaurant, and two nightclub-style sports bars in Toronto and Ottawa.  Recently, a 66% share of MLSE sold for $1.3-billion to Rogers and Bell, two Canadian telecommunications giants.

Much has been said about the owners’ greed and their attempts to make the players pay for that greed.  However, the players, at least, have the financial means to ride it through a lockout.  The owners have shown an extreme callousness to all of the other workers that make enjoying hockey possible — office staff, arena workers, concession workers, trainers, etc.  Unlike the players, these workers do not make multimillion-dollar salaries and have now been thrown out of work.  The Florida Panthers’ ownership was so miserly that they announced, via Twitter, the sacking of their own mascot!  The NHL’s head office has forced all of their employees to four-day workweeks, cutting their wages by 20%.  Even the NHL’s own referees and linesmen have been laid-off and solely given a $5,000 lump-sum payment for the duration of the lockout.

Reflections of the class struggle in the NHL lockout

As sharp as the attacks are of the owners versus the players, it would be ridiculous to put NHL players on the same level as teachers, postal workers, or steelworkers — all of whom have faced the cold realities of capitalist austerity in the recent period.  But, there are many similarities in the arguments being used by the NHL bosses, as well as the attempt to virtually destroy the organizing ability of the NHL players’ union.  Furthermore, there has been an interesting sharpening in the thought-process of many NHL players, which was not visible during the 2004-5 lockout.

In an unprecedented manoeuvre for a sports league in Canada, the NHLPA filed suit in Quebec and in Alberta to have the respective provinces’ labour boards declare the lockout to be illegal.  In both provinces, the NHLPA is not a recognized labour union, making it illegal for its workers to be locked-out by its bosses.  As this article is being written, the motion has temporarily failed in Quebec (a court will re-hear the motion in late September), while a decision is still pending in Alberta.  If the courts side with the NHLPA, the players in those provinces would continue to be paid, have access to the team’s resources, etc.

In Ontario, players for the Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators appealed to the provincial Liberal government to step in and end the lockout.  The Liberals refused, saying that they did not wish to interfere with the NHL’s negotiation process.  The Liberals’ hesitation to invoke back-to-work legislation and their commitment to collective-bargaining must come as a huge surprise to Ontario teachers who recently had their right to strike and collective bargaining taken away by the same provincial government!

Montreal Canadiens’ defenceman, Josh Gorges, had this to say about the players’ attempt to get labour boards and governments in play:

The players on the Montreal Canadiens simply want the labour laws of Quebec upheld, so that we can continue to play hockey while we work towards reaching a fair contract with the NHL…. As players we want to play. More than anything, the desire to play is what's guiding us. The owners, on the other hand, seem determined to impose a lockout. And so the players are going to use every tool at our disposal to stop them. Nothing is more destructive to bargaining than a lockout. A lockout should be a last resort. But the owners are treating it as their preferred option.”

This is a very welcome development, but it would go much further (and certainly win NHL players a great deal more public support) if they would also fight for the arena staff, concession workers, etc., who are being hurt terribly by this lockout.  This is part of the solidarity needed to ensure that the NHL bosses can be defeated. The players repeatedly offered to continue playing while negotiations took place, but the owners were eager to shut the doors once deadline of September 15 came and went.

How do we take back the game?

The actual players are only one sector that is hurt by the lockout.  As mentioned, ordinary workers who play an invaluable role in providing the experience that is an NHL game will have no other source of income to fall back on while the lockout continues.  But the rest of the working class in Canada and parts of the United States will suffer, too, as the NHL owners try to fatten their pockets.

Hockey truly belongs to the working class, and it is truly the workers’ game.  Generations of working-class children, particularly in Canada, have grown up with the dream of playing in the NHL.  Arguably the most memorable event for many Canadians was the 1972 Summit Series versus the Soviet Union, particularly Paul Henderson’s goal in the dying seconds of the eighth game to win the series for Canada.  One of the most pivotal instigators of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was the 1955 Montreal riot, arising from the NHL’s suspension of hockey great Maurice Richard, which was widely seen as an example of English Canada’s oppression of francophones.  Canada’s 2010 Olympic hockey gold medal victory was estimated to have been watched by over 20-million people, or a full two-thirds of Canadians.

There will be some, including leftists, who will argue that we should not concern ourselves in this battle between millionaire players and billionaire owners.  Even worse, some may even argue that the lockout is beneficial, as it will finally focus workers’ attentions to more important issues.  To this, we say that these individuals have no connection to the realities of working-class life in Canada or the role the game has played for Canadian workers. Trotsky understood the contradictions of this question. While recognizing that sports can act as a useful distraction for the capitalists, he advanced the slogan that sports should be taken out of the hands of the capitalists and given to the workers through their trade unions.

For millions of workers, there is no greater pleasure than escaping the drudgeries of life under capitalism by watching the game after work, or on Saturday night (unless if you’re an unfortunate fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs).  This winter, the greedy owners have taken that pleasure away from us.  Therefore, it must be us, the working class, that takes our game back!

A genuine socialist society cannot be devoid of entertainment and amusement.  The difference between a socialist vision of sports and its current capitalist incarnation is that under socialism, hockey would be truly accessible to all — particularly those who most enjoy it and derive pleasure from it.  And, the individuals who make this entertainment possible — arena workers, training staff, the players — would play a key deciding role in the conditions of the game.

Today, the game barely resembles its humble origins.  The majority of the NHL’s teams are in the USA, often in regions that have no connection or interest in hockey.  The Canadian teams, taking advantage for the sport’s passion in Canada, charge a proverbial arm and a leg for game tickets, meaning that many working-class families will never be able to afford a ticket to see their favourite team.  Even the ability for working-class children to grow up playing hockey is now being compromised with increasingly prohibitive costs for skates, pads, helmets, sticks, ice rental, and league fees.

A defeat for the NHL owners can be a first step in the fight against the corporatization of our game.  This, alone, will not be enough to save hockey, but it will be a much better result than if the NHL owners achieve another victory.

In the end, we need to attack the business roots of the NHL and of the sport if we are truly going to save it.  The NHL and all of hockey needs to be returned to its roots of providing entertainment and a service to those who enjoy it most.  Furthermore, the real stakeholders of the game — the players, the workers who make the games possible, the fans — should have the real power in deciding how the NHL is run.

Nationalize the NHL, under the control of its players, its workers, and its fans.  Rather than have corporate interests rule the games, let every team be managed by a democratic board, made up equally by the team’s players and workers, the team’s fans, and the local community.  Only then will the sport of hockey be able to return to its genuine origins, rooted in the daily life of the working class.

Let us take back the workers’ game!

Camilo Cahis is unfortunate enough to be a long-suffering fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs.