As of 16th September, the owners of the 30 NHL teams have locked out professional hockey players, probably dooming the 2004/2005 NHL season. Although professional hockey is largely ignored in the United States, it is a welcome diversion for the Canadian working class who flock to bars and pubs in order to kill the long Canadian winter. However, the corporate nature of the game is quickly killing that joy.

It is too easy to dismiss this dispute out of hand. As Marxists, we realize that professional sports are a continuation of the famous Roman practice of bread and circuses. Indeed, there have been many on the Left that have welcomed the NHL lockout. At last, they claim, the Canadian workers won’t be distracted from focusing on the ills of capitalism. Others believe that there is no socialist answer in a fight between millionaires. However, such thinking is wrong. A socialist society cannot be devoid of amusement and entertainment. For better or for worse, hockey is something that Canadians are passionate about. Rather than ignoring it or hoping that it goes away, we must present a real workers’ alternative to the NHL lockout.

Who is to blame?

The NHL lockout is not just any ordinary labour dispute. On one side, you have NHL owners, who are a group of extraordinarily rich businessmen and/or corporations. They’re looking to cut players’ wages by imposing a salary cap. Of course, to any worker, this sounds very familiar. However, unlike most other workers, NHL players are not struggling to make a living. In fact, these players have made so much money that one of them, Mario Lemieux, actually owns his own team, the Pittsburgh Penguins! Furthermore, the vast majority of hockey players are able to dictate their working conditions. If a player is unhappy with his salary or his team, he simply sits out until he’s traded to the team he wants to play with.

Any worker would love to be in such a situation and that is why the average Canadian is having such a hard time sympathizing with the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA). Poll after poll shows that people are more likely to blame the players than the owners for the NHL’s mess.

However, if players are rich, then the owners are even richer. That is why it is so hard to believe that all of these owners are in such great financial hardship. A few teams are owned by massive corporations (for example, Disney owns the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim). Even so-called small market teams have owners with deep financial pockets. The Calgary Flames have an ownership group whose collective net worth numbers in the billions of dollars (including the CEO of Tim Horton’s and Wendy’s in Canada).

The National Hockey League has stated that it wants to establish “cost certainty” in the league. Specifically, it wants to make sure that players’ salaries total no more than 60% of the total yearly revenue of the NHL (CBC Sports, In other words, the owners want to guarantee a generous profit for their investment portfolios.

Naturally, the NHLPA is vehemently opposed to a salary cap or any tactic that would dictate players’ salaries as a percentage of the NHL’s total revenue. NHLPA president Bob Goodenow claims that rising players’ salaries have not hurt the league because its revenues have increased by a similar margin. Of course they have! The owners haven’t paid for rising payrolls out of their own pockets; instead, they’ve made NHL ticket prices so high that they are affordable only to the very rich!

Corporate rule has destroyed the game

Professional sports is a multibillion dollar business and has been treated like one. Decisions are not made for the good of the game or for the fans who follow it. Instead, all decisions are made with the bottom line in mind. Canadian fans have seen the consequences very painfully.

Although hockey is a religion larger than any other in Canada, there are only six Canadian cities represented in the NHL. Of course, there used to be teams in Québec City and Winnipeg, but they moved to Denver and Phoenix where bigger bucks could be earned. There are two teams in southern Florida, three in California, and even one in Texas. (It is almost a certainty that none of these regions have ever seen natural snow or ice.) A survey once showed that people in North Carolina (where the Huricanes play) ranked hockey as their ninth favourite sport, even behind stockcar racing and professional wrestling! US television ratings are so abysmal that televised poker matches attracted ten times as many viewers than the finale of the World Cup of hockey.

Yet, the NHL has continued in its stupid strategy of “appealing” to Americans. Why? Because US corporations are pouring in colossal amounts of money into the NHL’s coffers. Instead of enjoying playoff games in their traditional Saturday night timeslot, fans were “treated” to Saturday afternoon matches this spring because that’s when American advertisers earn more money.

Every aspect of this lockout can be attributed to capitalism. The NHLPA had a very real purpose when it was founded. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, most NHL players were paid a pittance and played well past their prime to avoid sinking into poverty once they retired. Team owners signed players in their early teens, and then virtually controlled their lives until they were forced to retire. There were no real pensions or benefits given to players back then. NHL owners viciously exploited their players while they could.

Ted Lindsay was one of the greatest hockey players of his time, playing alongside Gordie Howe for the Detroit Red Wings in the 1950s. Lindsay aggressively worked at creating a players’ union that would give players basic rights against the owners and finally succeeded in creating the NHLPA. However, he was blacklisted by Detroit’s ownership and ended up being traded although he was one of the Red Wings’ best players.

However, the NHLPA’s mission would soon get sidetracked. In 1967, the NHL, in an effort to make more money, doubled in size. Although the number of teams may have increased dramatically, the talent pool had not. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the same period in which player agents began to pop up. These were lawyers who sought to exploit this scarcity in talent by selling the skills of their client to the highest bidder… while taking a very nice slice of the pie, as well. Of course, the disgraced Alan Eagleson was the most notorious of the early agents, signing Bobby Orr to the first “ridiculous” contract with the Boston Bruins.

It was not long before players’ salaries began to spiral out of control. In 1972, the World Hockey Association was created. In an effort to challenge the NHL, the WHA owners went on a spending spree. One of the new teams, the Winnipeg Jets, signed superstar Bobby Hull to the first million dollar contract in hockey history. Hull, one of the NHL’s greatest stars, would finish most of his hockey career in relative obscurity, although being well-paid to do so.

Player agents became a real player in the business of professional hockey. Often, agents would become an insidious element in the players’ lives. In the 1990s, Eagleson was imprisoned when it was revealed that as president of the NHLPA and as an agent, he had embezzled millions of dollars from player salaries. As a result, it was not uncommon that a lot of the players in the 1970s and early 1980s would retire to a life of poverty.

Just as NHL owners used to sign young kids (and subsequently control their lives), player agents have now taken that role. It is not uncommon for 11 and 12-year old children to sign with massive sports agencies and be treated as a commodity. Agents fill the minds of these kids with promises of multimillion-dollar contracts and endorsements rather than the joy of playing hockey. Players rarely have a say in contract negotiations; it is usually the agents that make all of the decisions for the player. Of course, let us not forget that agents (and the massive sports agencies that they work for) get a large percentage of any contract that a player signs for.

So… what’s the answer?

The vast majority of hockey fans are working class, and cannot relate with the “problems” claimed by either the owners or the players. What the average fan wants is for NHL hockey to return and that it become affordable. However, that will be impossible in the current capitalist system. The NHL owners claim that ticket prices will drop once their costs (i.e. player salaries) come down. You don’t have to be a Marxist to realize that this is a ridiculous lie! The owners know that 20,000 people will fill an arena at the current ticket prices. They realize that they do not need to drop prices to attract more people, even if labour costs are reduced. Lower player salaries just means a larger profit. Which capitalist can say no to that?

As Marxists, we realize that playing hockey (or any other sport) is a job that should be well-paid, like all others. Unlike others who may call themselves Marxists, we also realize that hockey plays an important role in the lives of Canadian workers and that we cannot simply ignore it. As shown above, the NHL (like all other professional sports) is a business and it is represented by capitalist interests. Any fan would agree that the sport is being killed by business.

We call for the nationalization of the NHL… there no role for big business! It is the workers that live and die with their teams, yet they have no input over what happens. Every team should be run democratically by a board where 1/3 of the members are players, 1/3 is made up of the local government, and 1/3 by the fans. Furthermore, we should not forget about the people who really make the games possible. Profits should be used to make sure there are decent unionized wages for ushers, janitors, concession staff, etc. Allow the massive elaborate arenas to be used for free sports training when the NHL teams are not in play.

No compromises… defend the workers’ game! For a socialist NHL!

November, 2004