The Desert Sun Shines On Old Ratface

Last week favored us with the news that the NHL has decided to drop an expansion team into Las Vegas.

I strongly encourage you to click the link above and take in the article on the league’s website announcing the move–not particularly for the info in the article itself, which is mostly just puffery.

No, I want hockey fans to take a look specifically at the featured image at the top of the page, which displays the new team’s owner, Bill Foley, standing next to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, a.k.a. Old Ratface, who is wearing what is practically a Webster’s definition of a sh*t-eating grin.

Folks, when Old Ratface starts smiling like that, hockey fans should start getting very worried.

The DFR logo with hockey stick and puckNo doubt, the reason Bettman is wearing that grin is the $500 million dollars–US, that is; none of that weak, little Canadian stuff around here, please–that Foley will be kicking in to the rest of the league’s teams for the privilege of desperately trying to keep ice frozen in Las Vegas in the fall and spring. Once again, Bettman has done his job, which is not making the NHL better, but lining the pockets of its owners.

The rest of this move is, at best, a little dicey. (See what I did there? Vegas. Dice.) In addition to adding yet another warm-weather team to a frozen pond league–this one a mere few hundred miles away from the Arizona Coyotes, who only got their new name when new local ownership finally took the team off the league’s hands–the move into Las Vegas places an NHL team into a market that has little historical connection to hockey, but has myriad connections to any number of other distracting diversions. At least some of those diversions may work to keep some of the locals out of the seats of the as-yet-unnamed team’s fancy new arena. And there’s always a chance that the town’s chief diversion, gambling, will begin to take interest in the NHL, which has heretofore flown largely below any fixer’s radar.


“There’s Old Ratface, grinning that grin and standing there with all that history dirtying his hands.”


So there’s plenty of local “zest” that will accompany this move, and some of it makes the decision potentially dubious. However, what draws my attention is not so much prospect for the future, but league history.

It seems, if you look at NHL history, labor strife has always seemed to follow close in hand with expansion.

All four NHL labor disputes have happened since 1992. The first strike, in 1992, came just a whisker after the Sharks, Lightning, and Senators joined the league. The 1994-95 lockout erupted just after the league welcomed in the Panthers and Ducks. The lockout which killed the 2004-05 season arrived a handful of years after the inception of the Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnipeg Jets) in 1999, and the Blue Jackets and Wild in 2000; the league took its good, sweet time with that one. And then, at last, Bettman and the owners were really feeling their oats when they instituted the 2012-13 lockout without the benefit of any recent league expansion. Perhaps that lack of expansionary springboard affected the quality of the strife; the last stoppage only killed half a season.

In sum, except for the last lockout, all of the previous labor battles have happened just a short hitch after the league welcomed in another team or two or three. And one might speculate that the 2004-05 lockout might have happened sooner than it did but for the length of the previously negotiated collective bargaining agreement, which had been extended just before the last wave of expansion happened.

Thankfully, the current agreement (negotiated in 2013) is a ten-year deal, and thus not scheduled to expire until 2023. And that big $500 million payday might keep the rest of the owners feeling flush enough that the next round of negotiations may go more smoothly than previous talks. There’s every reason to believe that labor peace will hold in the NHL for the foreseeable future.

Except there’s Old Ratface, grinning that grin and standing there with all that history dirtying his hands. If the league can find any pretext to look to renegotiate the deal early, you can bet they’ll take it. And all those expansion dollars, rather than assuage any owner’s greed, might addle the thinking enough to make the owners believe they can–no, should–get away with tearing up the deal and renegotiating. There is, after all, that uncomfortable pattern: expansion, unrest; expansion, unrest, expansion, unrest.

Maybe it won’t go that way this time. Perhaps the league really is on the way up, and the growing pie will feed all mouths to satisfaction. But the “disease of ‘more'” is always a possibility. And it will really sting that much more if another season is lost, thanks to an action that grows out of yet another Sun Belt boondoggle. Beware a smiling Old Ratface.

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