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If Preds GM David Poile's actions are any indication, NHL fans may be out of puck

Rock Out With Your Lockout

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The common refrain is that pro sports work stoppages don't help anyone. Players miss salary. Owners miss revenue. Fans miss entertainment. The ancillary industries — the bars and restaurants that, especially in Nashville, count on home games for a boost in traffic — miss the dollars generated by pregame beers and postgame burgers.

But in the latest work stoppage — the NHL's third lockout since 1994 — there are some people benefiting. Notably, Nashville Predators' defenseman Shea Weber decided to gamble that a new labor deal would be less beneficial to his own bottom line and took a calculated risk, signing an offer sheet from the Philadelphia Flyers. The Predators boldly matched the massive deal, and Weber — barring a trade, which he can't stop — will wear gold for 14 years. If Weber had little desire to remain a Predator, it was trumped by his desire to make mountains of money.

But lesser lights Craig Smith, Gabriel Bourque and Kevin Klein also benefited from the prospect — now realized — that the old collective bargaining agreement would turn into a rotting pumpkin at Saturday's midnight stroke.

The trio signed contract extensions when they still could, the Predators sending a furious flurry of press releases announcing the deal before sending a dour message that the NHL's owners had locked out its players.

The deals handed to Smith, Bourque and Klein are more illustrative of the prospects of an NHL season than was Weber's. All three were already under contract for the now-in-jeopardy 2012-13 season. By inking the deals, general manager David Poile ensured they would be for 2013-14 if a whole season is missed.

Were Poile confident he'd be able to communicate with his players this year, he might not have been so eager to sign them. Now at least he won't have to worry about rushing into a deal next summer or whenever the latest dispute is resolved.

There's nothing remarkable about the generalities of the latest management-union dispute in the NHL. As usual, it boils down to how a giant pot of money will be split.

The league spent several months crowing about its health and its success — record $3.3 billion revenues, a shiny new TV deal from NBC Sports, record attendance, record ratings, healthier franchises in once-forlorn markets (Nashville included).

And then, just as the Predators were matching the Weber offer sheet and the Minnesota Wild signed similarly gargantuan deals with Zach Parise and onetime Predator Ryan Suter, ownership cried poor.

While his owners signed record contracts, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, looking more dour than usual, held press conferences bemoaning — and this is completely true — the rising cost of jet fuel and massage therapists.

It's safe to say the players' union is winning the PR battle, if for no other reason than they aren't spending a lot of time complaining about the price of goods and services their fans don't have much concern for.

Bettman dutifully played Thurston Howell, bitching about Champagne futures. The players are fresh-faced Mary Anns who just want to do the right thing.

It's a role Bettman — Count von Count in an Italian suit — doesn't enjoy necessarily, but it is his lot. He is, after all, the mouthpiece — and too often the scapegoat — for the views of the 30 NHL owners, Croesus-rich plutocrats at best and faceless corporations at worst.

But there he goes — pursing his lips as he declares the union intransigent, biting his tongue as he's booed at the Stanley Cup finals ... and the draft ... and the All-Star game.

And out he comes now, arguing the owners' side: that a split of revenues closer to 50-50 — such as in the NFL and NBA — is more equitable than the 57 percent the players currently enjoy.

It's not an indefensible position, but as players' union head Donald Fehr rightly points out, not all sports are the same. And if Bettman wants to talk about pro leagues, Major League Baseball hasn't had any labor strife in nearly two decades, and the pastime doesn't use a salary cap. What Fehr fails to mention is that his 1994 strike so crippled baseball, it only came back after the league took a see-no-evil approach to steroids and crassly reaped the rewards.

What Bettman provides is an easy target for venom from fans and players, who are more than willing to lash him with barbs perhaps better aimed at the gentlemen in the owner's box.

Rarely do fans heap such biting criticism onto the owners, preferring instead to launch missiles at the commissioner. The players are more than willing to engage in this little piece of kabuki too. Better to blame Bettman than the guy who will — eventually — pay their salaries.

And while this war of indecipherable words — jargoned to death with chatter about "hockey-related revenue" and "escrow" and "cost certainty" — drones on ad infinitum, there's still no hockey in sight.

But surely, surely, neither side sees the good in another 2004-style stoppage, canceling another year. Right?

It seems inconceivable — and yet, the ever careful Poile looks like he's prepared for it.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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