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.
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