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Red Line, Blue Line, Bottom Line: How Push Came to Shove Between the National Hockey League and Its Players

by Marc Edge

With the cancellation of the 2004-2005 NHL season looking like a done deal, hockey fans are beginning to realize that this may turn out to be the ugliest and longest labour dispute in the history of the game. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been given an unprecedented amount of negotiation power by team owners, while Bob Goodenow, the equally hardnosed head of the Players’ Association, advised his charges years ago to begin saving money for what he believes will be at least one lost season.

With no negotiation sessions scheduled in the foreseeable future, the battle for public opinion has become paramount to both sides. The owners are crying poor and blaming escalating salaries for their money woes, while the players accuse their bosses of cooking the books to distort just how much money the league generates every year. Anyone wanting to come to an informed opinion on the accusations and counteraccusations being lobbed around on sports talk shows should spend a few hours with Marc Edge’s Red Line, Blue Line, Bottom Line.

Bruce Dowbiggin weighed in on the NHL’s labour woes with last year’s excellent Money Players, a work Bell cites throughout Red Line. But whereas Dowbiggin limited his focus to the NHL and its unique personality types, business and labour practices, and professional codes of honour (and organized dishonour), Bell’s more theoretical work places the NHL’s current labour impasse within the historical continuum of the other three major sports leagues: the NBA, the NFL, and Major League Baseball.

What he finds amid the regional variations is a lot of the same old, same old. Players in the four leagues were mercilessly exploited by greedy owners until the players wised up and organized in the 1960s and ’70s. Players fought for free agency, salary hikes, pensions, and salary disclosure, while owners tried to balance these gains with various payroll schemes, including salary caps and luxury taxes.

What is especially interesting about Red Line is Edge’s analysis of how these owner-imposed restrictions on player salaries are usually undermined by the owners themselves – with a lot of help from clever player agents. Edge also shows how the tactic of teams crying poor has more to do with the owners’ creative accounting practices than escalating player salaries, declining TV contracts, and the fluctuations of the North American economy.

Edge quotes dozens of experts on the business of play, including ex-Blue Jays guru Paul Beeston, who once said that “under generally accepted accounting principles, I can turn a $4 million profit into a $2 million loss and I can get every national accounting firm to agree with me.” Something to remember the next time Gary Bettman lambasts the greedy players for ruining the game.