The Tampa Bay Lightning should have been in Pittsburgh this morning, getting ready for a game Tuesday night against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. It would have been the Lightning's 37th game of the season.
Instead, players are scrambling from across the globe to get back to Tampa Bay for an abbreviated training camp that will precede an abbreviated season.
Shortened and late is better than never, right?
Maybe. The NHL's 113-day lockout finally ended Sunday, and the excitement of hockey cranking back up is tempered by the anger that we've spent the past three months listening to commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Donald Fehr instead of watching Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis. (Speaking of which, is there any way we can make Bettman and Fehr stand in front of a net and take a few crosschecks in the kidneys from Eric Brewer?)
So as we wait for this season to get going, let's take a look at the winners and losers of the lockout.
Winner: Owners. If the lockout was an actual hockey game, the owners blew out the players. We can dissect all the items in the new collective bargaining agreement and find a few lines here and there where the owners gave in. But every labor deal in all businesses comes down to one thing: how to split up the pie. Under the last NHL deal, the owners collected 43 percent of hockey-related revenue, the players 57 percent. This time around, there is a 50-50 split. We're talking perhaps a $3 billion swing over the next 10 years. Yeah, that makes the owners the huge winner.
Loser: Players. Not only are the players giving back 7 percent of the revenue, they lost about 40 percent of their salaries for this season for not playing. That's gone forever. It was not a total whitewash. The players now have a decent pension plan, and there's a seven-year (in some cases an eight-year) limit on individual contracts as opposed to the five years the owners wanted. But overall, the best thing the players can say today is: "Hey, it could have been worse.'' That's not good.
Loser: NBC Sports Network. The network paid more than $200 million a year for the NHL's broadcasting rights and has had to spend the past three months filling the air with Babe Winkelman's Outdoor Secrets and bad boxing cards. Its anchor tenant is back.
Winner: Scot Beckenbaugh. He was the federal mediator who saved the league from going over its own little fiscal cliff. Just days before the league's self-imposed deadline to salvage the season, Beckenbaugh worked tirelessly, shuffling back and forth between the stubborn owners and desperate players to find enough common ground to kick-start the final compromise. Forget Stamkos or Crosby, Beckenbaugh already has my vote for league MVP.
Loser: Gary Bettman. The commissioner works for the owners, and they are likely pleased with Bettman, seeing as how he got them the deal they wanted. But Bettman's already shaky reputation among players and fans took a serious hit, so serious that it's time for the owners to start searching for a new commissioner. There is just too much animosity for him to be an effective leader.
Winner: Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. His participation in the negotiations in December didn't lead to an agreement, but he is now seen as one of the more reasonable voices among the owners. He now has a stellar reputation among the players and other respected owners, as opposed to hard-liners such as Jeremy Jacobs (Bruins) and Murray Edwards (Flames), two thick-headed egomaniacs who nearly sabotaged the talks and got the season canceled. Oh, one more thing about Vinik. Unlike some owners, he kept all team employees at full pay while continuing to donate money regularly to charity.
Winner: Smaller-market teams. The salary cap will decrease next season, giving the smaller-market teams more of a chance to compete with the big boys. Also, the league will have revenue sharing that should help smaller markets.
Loser: Smaller-market teams. The revenue sharing did not go as far as it should have, and the overall agreement still leans toward the richer clubs.
Loser: Team and league office workers. Many teams laid off employees. Some went to four-day workweeks, meaning staffers took a 20 percent pay cut. Are you telling me the league was that hard up that it couldn't keep everyone on its staff at full pay? Bettman and the owners who slashed staff and payroll — mostly as a lame negotiating ploy — should be ashamed of themselves.
Loser: The NHL. This is its third major labor dispute since 1994, and since then, the league has lost the equivalent of two seasons. That's embarrassing and the reason why many, especially in this country, barely give the sport a second thought.
Loser: The fans. It's Jan. 7, and there is no hockey game tonight, just like there hasn't been one since June's Stanley Cup final. We have to wait just a little longer and then we'll have our hockey back. We want to be happy about that. First, we need to get past our anger.