2012 NHL CBA: Put on hold by Gary's Game

It's hard for me to buy into the excitement that there are only 60-odd days until opening night of the 2012-13 Tampa Bay Lightning season. It's equally difficult for me to get lost in the questions about position battles and if head coach Guy Boucher plans to make changes to a power play that was both predictable and unimaginative in its implementation last season.

I'd like to think about the idea the Lightning and the Florida Panthers could rekindle the long dormant, currently underwhelming, rivalry. Between preseason and regular season matchups, the two clubs are supposed to meet nine times in the months ahead. If a grudge between the clubs was ever going to be re-ignited, it should be this season.

But no, I can't think about that. I can't get enthused about that. I can't seriously focus on questions like Lightning goaltending, or the changes on the blue-line. It's all Greek to me. The doldrums of summer are supposed to afford me this time to speculate and ponder; sus is the life of the idle fan.

That's all out of the question right now, as it'd just lead to more potential pain and frustration. My downtime has been muted, if not entirely put on hold, with thanks to Gary's Game.

Normally, the term "Gary's Game' is used in a detrimental description of hockey's progression under Commissioner Gary Bettman's watch: Rules changes and enforcement failures, the shootout, the emphasis on offense, expansion, and multiple other issues that vary from fan to fan and season to season. That's how "Gary's Game" is usually defined.

In this case, I use the term simply as a description of the current state of negotiations between the NHL and the NHLPA. Sides are talking, which is a damn sight better than it was in 2004 at this point in time.

That doesn't mean the state of things is good, though. And Commissioner Bettman has thrust himself into the limelight to express discontent at the process.

Gary's Game, in this usage, is throwing down a gauntlet at players: Hasten negotiations, or perhaps accept the draconian economic changes (to rectify revenue issues, along with other arcane management failures by owners), or the league will lock out players and delay the start of the 2012-2013 season.

Gary's Game doesn't just reflect players being put on notice of the league's growing impatience during negotiations... It shows contempt toward employees of all 30 franchises who would be directly affected by a work stoppage.

You think you'll be annoyed by the Bolts not starting the season on time? Think about the concession workers who are paid to serve food and drinks to visiting fans. Think of the security workers and ticket takers who would have fewer events to oversee. Think of the janitorial staff that cleans up fans messes. Think about all the little people who work at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, then multiply it 29 times.

Think about the economy at current; in the United States, there's already an 8.3% unemployment rate (it's about 7.8% in Canada), rising food costs with thanks to the drought of 2012 hammering the nation's bread basket. Think about gas prices inching up-up-up...

You'll be annoyed if the season doesn't start on time, but it's not your own boss making you expendable for the sake of said-annoyance. Gary's Game isn't just a challenge to the NHLPA, it's a smack in the face of those whose livelihood is working during the games we love to watch and attend.

And for what, exactly? This is where the fans choose sides, but it's a moot discussion: It's the haves versus the have-mores. It's the millionaires versus the billionaires. Being sympathetic toward either side is difficult. The difference is, the billionaires want more and want to put the millionaires in their place as subordinates.

The message from the league is thus: This is not a business partnership; high tide does not raise all boats. This applies to the NHLPA, and the individuality of ownership. The league may be one exclusive group of wealthy colleagues, but the solvency of each respective business matters not as-so-much the personal health of a singular owner's venture.

That's what justifies the league's first proposal to players from last month - it strengthens individuals without conceding a cent of prosperity from those better off. It's short-sighted, and guarantees the likelihood for the league to seek further concessions in future labor negotiations, because the owners' proposal does nothing to improve the long-term solvency of its member clubs. It's a quick fix.

I'll admit that most of what I'm saying I've already stated, but it does warrant repeating: Players conceded on just about every point that ownership wanted at the end of the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Commissioner Bettman got everything he claimed would improve the economics of the game and franchise vitality.

Gary's Game, the threat of a 2012 NHL lockout, is attempting to assure you that all those remedies failed, and the collective of NHL owners cannot continue under such a flawed document as the 2005 NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement.

And so we're on hold. The fans paying attention are disgruntled, wondering what they can do. Players are frustrated as Bettman rattles the saber and escalates tensions when there was no need. Gary Bettman is made the central figure of discontent, but he serves at the will of ownership - and ownership is paying him to look like the bad guy here and be unpopular.

Gary's Game is the game of the NHL Board of Governors and the will of NHL ownership. How that game will be affected by the Players Association's counter-proposal to owners (expected on Tuesday) remains to be seen. In all likelihood, the game will continue and we'll remain hostage to its whims.