Any doubt that Minnesota is "the state of hockey" was put to rest on July 4. Temperatures topped 100 degrees in many areas, but all that sweltering locals seemed to want to talk about was ice hockey, and what impact the signings of high-profile free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter would have on the Minnesota Wild.
Wild players and management must wish fans were still talking about locking up the Stanley Cup. Instead, they're talking about the latest labor lockout, which began last weekend and shows no signs of an early thaw.
The issue is money, as it always seems to be in professional sports. Lots of money. National Hockey League revenues rose to a record $3.3 billion last season. But despite that plenty, squabbles between multimillionaire (or billionaire) owners and millionaire players over the expiring collective bargaining agreement could not be ironed out.
The owners want to emulate rollbacks in recent pro basketball and football deals. The recently expired contract gave NHL players about 57 percent of revenues, but the owners' latest offer was for about 47 percent, which would mean less pay for some players.
Unlike players and owners, small-business operators in St. Paul, as well as employees who work game nights at the Xcel Energy Center, don't have high-powered negotiators representing them. Their businesses, and personal incomes, stand to take a significant hit if the dispute is not settled. The impact has already begun: On Wednesday, the NHL canceled all 61 preseason games through Sept. 30.
It's hard to choose sides in a dispute that disgusts everyone. True, no one has ever bought a ticket to see league managers lace up their skates. It's players with local ties, like Parise and Suter, or the ever-increasing international talent that make the National Hockey League popular. But then again, spiraling salaries suggest that owners need to control their cost structure, lest tickets become even more prohibitively expensive for hockey moms and dads and kids.
Unlike most intractable labor disputes, which often arise because of shrinking revenues, this lockout is about divvying up riches. This revenue is available for only one reason -- fans. Both sides, despite slick PR campaigns, seem to have forgotten this.
Fans cannot be expected to remain forever patient, or loyal -- especially because this is the third lockout since Gary Bettman became commissioner in 1993. Last time, the entire 2004-2005 season was lost. Another scrapped season might mean that regardless of who "wins" the labor dispute, all involved will take a pay cut, as frustrated fans realize that there are more appreciative recipients of their money.
Most dispiriting, there is no indication that a sense of urgency has taken hold. Only informal talks are taking place. And many players are weighing whether to take off to play in European leagues. Bettman and Donald Fehr, the union chief familiar to Major League Baseball fans for his role in baseball's labor troubles, should commit to continue meeting until this is solved.
And whether or not a new contract is reached, the owners should think long and hard about Gary Bettman's future. His presiding over a hat trick of lockouts suggests that big-league hockey is not in good hands.
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