Blackhawks owner: “I don't think the owners or the players should have to apologize” for the NHL lockout

Jonathan Willis
January 18 2013 01:44PM

In a fascinating interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz said something truly remarkable: that neither the owners nor the players should need to apologize for the NHL lockout.

It’s a ballsy comment, and particularly interesting because Wirtz backed it up with a legitimate argument.

The transcript of the full interview can be found here, and it’s quite a read.

Asked directly whether fans were owed an apology, Wirtz answered this way:

I don't think so. I think we can thank them for their patience. But I think the process we went through, I don't think the owners or the players should have to apologize for going through a collective bargaining process. Labor is labor, and that's just the way it is. It might be very distasteful for the fans, but unfortunately, when you have unions involved, that's the process you have to go through. There's nothing you can do. This happens to be a labor situation that's more public than most businesses. When there are union negotiations, unless it impacts people's lives, usually we don't know about it.

Essentially, the argument boils down to ‘this is a business, and sometimes labour negotiations lead to work stoppages.’

Wirtz further added that neither Gary Bettman or Donald Fehr should be painted as villains in the process:

Gary did exactly what the owners asked him to do, and that was to get a contract in which all 30 teams could be profitable. The owners were all walking in lockstep, as the players were. Many times you read about people villainizing Gary Bettman, [but] he was doing just what the owners wanted him to do, just as Don Fehr was doing what the players wanted him to do. You have to respect their positions, but I don't think anyone should [begrudge] either of them for doing what they're paid to do, and that's to sit down and collectively bargain. It might take longer than people wanted it to, but it was a process they had to go through.

Wirtz’s comments are in harmony with an earlier interview with the Chicago Tribune, where he said both men did a “terrific job” and went further to describe Fehr as “a very smart man” and a “very good labour leader.”

I’m of two minds on his comments.

On the one hand, I think Wirtz is basically saying what a lot of people on both sides of the negotiation were thinking. Even as individual players slammed Bettman, and the league’s various surrogates in the media (thanks to a gag order, owners/team employees were kept quiet) ridiculed Fehr, there was never much doubt that the negotiations on a new CBA were a hard-fought contest between a pair of formidable leaders. The fact that it’s a business is inescapable these days, and the battle wasn’t a fight between the forces of good and evil so much as it was a tussle between two competing groups each looking out for their respective interests. I’m also more than a little surprised that there was an NHL owner with the nerve to put things so bluntly – and I prefer an honest, if unsympathetic answer over a meaningless apology.

On the other hand, the NHL business is built on emotion. It’s why the City of Edmonton – as other cities around North America have before it - is going to contribute public funds to an arena despite the fact that the financial case for it is questionable. It’s why fans throw money at anything with a team logo on it, why sites like this have such a passionate following – because fans love the sport, even if they don’t always (or even usually) love the people running the league. To say, ‘well, it’s just business’ is at odds with how people feel about hockey.

Still, I appreciate the honesty.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 Romulus' Apotheosis
January 18 2013, 01:55PM
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Except for the fact that...

1) they knew the cba was going to expire forever and waited way too long to start bargaining in earnest

2) the fans aren't merely external factors, they are the ultimate paymasters. the product we paid for was taken away.

but ultimately an apology is wasted anyway, because it reads as trite

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#2 dougtheslug
January 18 2013, 02:04PM
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The fact that Wirtz doesn't seem to realize the damage done to the product he is trying to sell says everything you need to know about ineptitude of the people running the league. He believes that this CBA will make all 30 teams profitable? Is he kidding? Or is he living in the same fantasy world that leads Oiler fans to believe this year is the year we win the Cup. But at least our fantasies are harmless - his actually hurt real people. That stuff makes me want to reconsider my buying back in to this season.

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#3 Archaeologuy
January 18 2013, 02:03PM
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@Romulus' Apotheosis

It's your 1st point that makes me angry as a fan. Negotiations dont HAVE to wait for 3 months after the agreement expires. I'm no labour lawyer, but I dont think that's what is supposed to happen.

And that falls on both sides.

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#4 Romulus' Apotheosis
January 18 2013, 02:14PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

It's your 1st point that makes me angry as a fan. Negotiations dont HAVE to wait for 3 months after the agreement expires. I'm no labour lawyer, but I dont think that's what is supposed to happen.

And that falls on both sides.

It's irritating to no end and happens in a lot labor negotiations.

Withdrawing labor/payment ought to be last resorts not par for the course.

It seems to have become standard practice for both unions and mgt. teams across diverse working situations to feel the need to pressure the other party in this manner.

It's hard to see the benefit beyond a psychological one (I forced them to accede to my demands).

The monetary tradeoff of losing labor/productivity in one case and losing wages in the other only to reach a deal that is marginally, if at all, different from what the deal was always going to be... seems a negligible benefit.

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#5 TigerUnderGlass
January 18 2013, 05:36PM
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@Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

I do not believe for one second that either side was negotiating in good faith

I don't think "good faith" means what you think it means.

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#6 Jonesing
January 18 2013, 07:05PM
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Bicepus Maximus - Peter, The Great. Potter, the Goat. wrote:

What an f*cking tool!

This isn't a regular union dispute. No one gives a flying f*ck about some warehouse strike. If the NHL Lockout happens to be a high profile labour dispute, guess what else it happens to be - every one's business. And for good reason.

Questionable character. The guy is not a self made billionaire. He also has a communications degree, so it's pretty obvious what he's doing.

Man, I'd burn his baby's crib if I was a Hawks fan! Try and pull this sh*t in a hockey crazed Canadian city and see what happens.

Ya - 'labor is labor, and thats just the way it is.' - what a f*cking deadbeat. The owners locked the players out!... Loser.

Anyway, its a matter of respect. You depend on fans for revenue, so do you show your customers respect and appreciation or do you spit in their face and just expect them to come back, cause its your f*ckin world and they're just living in it?

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#7 Chris.
January 19 2013, 11:41AM
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@Rocky Wirtz

Go screw yourself.

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#8 Hat Pughes
January 18 2013, 01:49PM
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Rocky make a legitimate argument .... but the FIST GM to extend a really stupid contract which compromises the intended results of said collective bargaining process should then be asked to defend how and why it isnt such a stupid idea....................(Sorry someone speaking to me...what??? Lamoriello signed Zajac to what??????).

Lou Lamoirello please take the stand.

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#9 Dustin Terpstra
January 18 2013, 01:53PM
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I may be of the minority here but I agree with the owner. I realize it is a business and as much as it sucks not to start on time I know why it happened and that it isn't a slight to fans. Glad they are back though. Let's go Oilers!

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#11 Max Powers - Team HME Evans
January 18 2013, 02:32PM
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These lockouts are a necessary evil. They ultimately prevent one side from holding an uneven upper hand. As much a it sucks, it restores balance, in a way.

No one likes it but the lawyers. Watch "net worth" to see what an unbalanced dynamic looks like. Now that's unfair and uneven.

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#12 Death Metal Nightmare
January 18 2013, 02:37PM
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sorry, but people who reduce reality to "it's just business" view reality through a psychopathic lens.

the fact that he underestimates how the fans, and the corporations they maintain through consumerism, keep this Joke-of-League going is just part of the same Economist/Atomist fantasy view-finder.

his dad "Dollar Bill" can eat feces too.

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#13 Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things
January 18 2013, 02:38PM
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He's got an interesting perspective on this, but I disagree for a couple reasons:

1) Romulus' Apotheosis' first point listed above. I do not believe for one second that either side was negotiating in good faith, or that the resolution of the dispute took place in a timely manner.

2) If you are not selling a necessity, your consumer's perception of your brand is more important than what you might perceive as being logical. What matters in this scenario is not why the fans feel slighted, it's that the fans feel slighted. Given the fact that the fans have a fair bit of choice in where they spend their disposable income, that should be the owners' number one concern.

Take a look at Canada Post's most recent labour dispute - I'm sure a lot of the people involved didn't realize that it'd give plenty of major corporations a reason to push their customers onto paperless correspondence, or into contracts with other non-union carriers to mitigate the impact to their operations.

Some of these people love sticking to their guns, but don't realize that it could cost them their jobs.

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#14 Oiler Al
January 18 2013, 02:42PM
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" Big Rockey" did thank the fans for their patience, but I think to him this is all business. he uses the words "union" and "labor", in the same context as "players. So you can see that where his head is at.

Lets face everyone ,including the NHL, knew the fans would be back. The ones that left are probably doing so for reason other than the lockout.

Not sure that a bag or popcorn or free practice game hurts the cause, but you can not repay passion. Its part of game and fan make up. It will not bring back the games lost, but fans are not charged for them either.

Thanks to the media and channels like ON, kept the passion and spirit of the game alive. At times more so than if the games would have been played. Five games in fans will forget there ever was a lockout.

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#15 Rick
January 18 2013, 02:44PM
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I agree that neither side should be issuing an apology but I say that only because it's impossible to accept that there is any sincerity behind it.

Where I do take issue with his position is where he appears to liken the lockout to just another labour dispute.

The players are not hard done by factory workers conciously eager to engage in the poorest business practices while both groups depend on 'patient' fans to give them what they want.

I was holding out hope that fans would be walking away in bunches once the game came back but I fear Strudwick was right in saying everyone will be back, eager to be taken for granted once again.

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#16 Dog Train
January 18 2013, 02:56PM
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They might not feel the need to apologize to fans but this lockout was a huge waste of time where nothing was really accomplished. Reaction in Edmonton and most of Canada seems to be that fans will come back. A few markets in the US will get the same treatment. For the majority of the league though? Teams like Anaheim and Dallas? Time to kiss some serious butt because the NHL is now even more irrelevant than it was before.

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#17 justDOit
January 18 2013, 03:00PM
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I like how he basically blames just one side, 'any time you have unions involved'. Yeah - because the owners are all very upstanding and forthright in their negotiations.

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What an f*cking tool!

This isn't a regular union dispute. No one gives a flying f*ck about some warehouse strike. If the NHL Lockout happens to be a high profile labour dispute, guess what else it happens to be - every one's business. And for good reason.

Questionable character. The guy is not a self made billionaire. He also has a communications degree, so it's pretty obvious what he's doing.

Man, I'd burn his baby's crib if I was a Hawks fan! Try and pull this sh*t in a hockey crazed Canadian city and see what happens.

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#19 j
January 18 2013, 04:18PM
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He is completely accurate in his comments. Professional hockey is nothing more than an entertainment business. Like movies, the music industry or TV series. Remember when the 'Friends' cast held out for more money? Who cares. No lives are lost and no apologies sought. Perhaps a key grip and the sound man had to look for other work but the world carried on. If Sony closed it's studios for 6 months due to a labour dispute - would you care? Would you need the contracted singers to say sorry? Moreover, for some reason people are upset because the employees are millionaires. That is irrelevant. There are hundreds of COEs in the US who make multiples of what the highest paid NHL players make. And there all millions of working class that make multiples less. Why does that matter? All labour agreements are based on economies of scale and the marketplace. That doesn't change the fundamental negotiation rights of both parties. Nor does our passion for the game. The rules of union negotiations still apply.

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#20 Bushed
January 18 2013, 05:36PM
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Wirtz is correct in saying that negotiations can take time. The posturing and other tactics that can and do lengthen the process sometimes seem to be a "necessary evil" prior to resolution.

But labor negotiations outside the NHL often begin before an existing contract has even expired (6 months prior on average at my workplace). If the process goes well, a new contract can be done before the other contract is even over.

The NHL owners chose to drag their feet for many months before even starting negotiations, so I think the owners do owe us an apology, even if it does nothing to placate the fans' ire. But the apology should be for treating its customers like crap and taking them for granted (try that in most other businesses!?), not just for taking forever to do a deal that may have been resolved during the summer if they actually gave a crap about the fans.

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#21 oliveoilers
January 18 2013, 06:19PM
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Mr Wirtz, where, exactly, does you revenue come from? the fans, either directly through merchandising/tickets or indirectly through tv rights. when this happens in the real world, as i have experience with, the company basically grovels to the customer for them to come back. yes, you should apologise and kiss as much butt as it takes for people to buy your product. but wait...was this interview after he saw the masses turning up to practice and buying tickets to the opening game? very glib, mr wirtz, very glib.

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#22 Chet134
January 18 2013, 06:24PM
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So the average labour dispute in North America is over 3 billion dollars.

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#23 westcoastoil
January 18 2013, 06:36PM
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Archaeologuy wrote:

It's your 1st point that makes me angry as a fan. Negotiations dont HAVE to wait for 3 months after the agreement expires. I'm no labour lawyer, but I dont think that's what is supposed to happen.

And that falls on both sides.

Totally agree & I also fully agree that the villainisation (did i just make up a word?) of Bettman is totally misplaced. If the owner's wanted to negotiate in the summer and start the season in Sept. they would have done so. Bettman is their employee and acts at their direction. I know in my job I will often don the black hat and be the bad guy for my clients as an intentional strategy to make it easier for the parties to co-exist after the deal is struck.

That said, bottom line is hockey is entertainment and as fans it's our choice whether we want to continue to invest time, money and energy in the NHL. That falls on us.

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#24 Spydyr
January 18 2013, 06:39PM
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Who wants an apology?

I want hockey......one more sleep!!!

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#25 Bucknuck
January 18 2013, 07:16PM
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The NHL is a business. It provides a product to fans, which makes them a supplier.

Their customer was demanding product, and their labour issues caused their customer not to get the product. It inconvenienced the client.

In any business I know of, when the customer is inconvenienced by a supplier, that customer is usually owed an apology for it.

If the NHL is a business, then they better start acting like one. Part of that is being courteous to the customer.

Idiot.

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#26 Clyde Frog
January 18 2013, 09:17PM
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If I recall correctly Chicago was also on of the last markets to stop blacking out their games on local TV....

If there is a poster child for out of touch, that would be it.

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#27 book¡e
January 18 2013, 09:33PM
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Let's keep this simple so the billionaire man can understand.

If I go to McDonalds and they don't have any burgers because there was a freezer malfunction, which is a normal part of business, they apologise to me as they should.

As for blaming it on their being a 'union', the billionaire man needs to realize that without the union, the league could not collude with one another. Under a free market system like that, there would be way more teams (other leagues) and hockey would be less profitable. There would also be way less subsidization.

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#28 Robert
January 18 2013, 09:39PM
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The only thing that matters in any buisness is the customer. Let's not forget who pays this jerks salary. If I were this guys boss, I would be making customer retention a direct measurement of how he is paid. Time for a wake up call. No customers watching your product = no television time = no sponsers = no job. What a clown.

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#29 loosmoose
January 19 2013, 09:02AM
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The people that expect an apology should know something.....

Anybody that would apologize for this lockout , would not mean it. This is probably as close to sincere as you'll get.

Oh yeah...........HOCKEY'S BACK

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#31 Chet134
January 19 2013, 09:56AM
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So we wait five months to fix the dynamics of the NHL. The first big contract signed after the deal was finalized was Zajac from the devils 8 years 45 million for a two time 60 point center man. 5.7 million cap hit. So why were we locked out and who's at fault. See everyone in eight years when we have the next lockout. The owners are there own evil.

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#32 nunyour
January 19 2013, 10:10AM
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the owners and players could'nt care less about the fans,they mite say they do ,but they don't.so no need for an appologe.but they do care about their money,and that is the only way for the fans to make their point.

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#33 wiseguy
January 19 2013, 12:27PM
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If GM locks out their employees to get lower wages and benefits so they can make a better product at a more competitive price, and no cars are produced for 4 months, they hurt their bottom line in the short term. In the long term, the idea is that you can produce a more desirable and competitive product to sell to your customers. The NHL is no different. The only reason why fans are so upset about the lockout is that we are addicted to their product and we are not getting our fix. These fans are not the ones the NHL are concerned about because we will be the first in line once they resume. The NHL business plan has to involve making a product that will attract new fans in new markets. Competition for entertainment dollars is fierce and the league is only a small player in non-traditional markets. If you don't attract new fans, markets, and larger TV dollars, the only way to grow your business to keep up with escalating costs would be to demand more money from your current fans. I'm assuming most of us agree that they've reached the limit even in good markets. Even governments understand that to curb demand for an addicting product like nicotine, you raise the price (by taxes in that case). The financial pressure will make the most avid fan consume the product less. Fighting for the new CBA, even for the slight reduction salaries, buys time for the league to keep competing for market share to grow the pie. The last lockout was about building a better product that is more competitive so that all teams have a chance to win the cup. This one is about giving the money losing teams time to get customers hooked on their product. Detractors repeatedly say that contraction would improve the quality of play, yet we all don't like how we only get to see western teams this year. Contraction would also result in less TV dollars and higher ticket prices. To summarize, get over it, the NHL and every other league (including the Olympics where amateurs compete) is big business.

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#34 thefullnelson
January 20 2013, 03:59PM
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Rocky clearly isn't much of a businessman. See, businesses rely on customers. This is a service economy and when people don't like the service they get, they take their business elsewhere. It doesn't matter if the customers are rational in their anger or not - the fact that you are ignoring it makes it worse. In business, the rule of thumb is every happy customer tells one person; every unhappy customer tells ten people. In business, each customer lost for you is also one customer gained for a competitor. This process can take time to gain momentum, but if it reaches a certain point there is no halting it. The NHL is not in financial trouble and there is little risk that the fans won't come back. However, they should not be complacent about having thrown away more than a billion dollars and mortally offended the most passionate elements of their fan base over a pissing contest with Fehr over a few percentage points in a time of record profits.

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