NEW YORK – In a meeting of the NHL’s Board of Governors, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was ratified by unanimous vote. The only barrier between the league and it’s freshly painted sheets of ice are the players ratifying by majority vote, which is expected to be completed by Saturday. The NHLPA’s vote is likely to be nearly as rubber-stamped.
With the end to one of the most embarrassing episodes in league history finally at hand, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman led off his post-meeting press conference with an apology.
“To the players who were very clear they wanted to be on the ice and not negotiating labor contracts, to our partners who support the league financially and personally, and most importantly to our fans, who love and have missed NHL hockey, I am sorry,” Bettman said. “I know that an explanation or an apology won’t erase the hard feelings that have built up over the past few months, but I owe you an apology nevertheless.”
“This great game has been gone for far too long, and for that we are truly sorry,” said Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, Chairman of the Board of Governors.
As angry as the fans are, as upset as the sponsors are, and as frustratingly long as this process was, Bettman firmly believes the time is now to look forward, not backward at the last four months of debauchery between the league and the players.
“I think it’s time to turn a page and move forward as quickly as possible,” Bettman said. “Going back and revisiting the last 100-or-more days isn’t going to serve any constructive purpose.”
“They have a right to feel however they want,” said Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, of the league’s fans. “Whenever labor disputes come out, the fans get irate because they don’t want to hear about that. They want the game to be played on the ice. The labor stuff is just something they don’t want to deal with.”
But, for 113 days they did have to deal with it. And now that it’s over, the league understands the fans will need some urging to return after the end of the third lockout in 18 years.
“Frankly, [the fans] didn’t care who was at fault, they wanted hockey back,” Bettman said. “I understand that, and as commissioner of the league, no matter what my view of the world is in terms of how and why or wherever, it’s my responsibility to them to make it right.
“I read the letters, I followed the tweets, I read the blogs, we have a lot of work to do,” Bettman said. “The NHL has a responsibility to earn back your trust and support. Whether you watch one game or every game, that effort begins today.”
It’s going to be a tough slog for this league that continues to shoot itself in the foot during labor disagreements. In fact, the first question asked of Bettman was how to ensure this won’t happen again in ten years.
“We build a relationship,” Bettman said. “We have, we think for the first time in 8 years, a stable union with strong leadership. That gives us an opportunity to work together as partners, and build a relationship and build trust which can only happen with time.”
Bettman’s reference to the players as partners is fascinating. At the end of the 2004-2005 lockout that cost the league an entire season, Bettman uttered a similar line.
“As commissioner of the NHL, it sometimes falls upon me to make tough decisions that disappoint and occasionally anger players and fans. This was a long and extremely difficult negotiation,” Bettman said. “One that took a lot longer than anybody wanted. I know it caused frustration, disappointment, and even suffering to a lot of people who have supported the NHL in many different ways. In the end, neither side got everything it wanted and everyone lost in the short term.”
The best hope for hockey fans is that no one ever forgets just how badly everyone lost in the short term. Otherwise, see you in 2022.