No, he shouldn't have said it, at least not publicly. He shouldn't have compared the players to cattle, shouldn't have invited howls of collusion, shouldn't even have defended NHL commissioner Gary Bettman -- not amid a sensitive labor situation, not when union boss Donald Fehr won a famous collusion case in baseball, not when the Bettman haters will never be converted.
The Detroit Red Wings will swallow a $250,000 fine for the interview senior vice president Jimmy Devellano gave the Island Sports News in Victoria, British Columbia. Bottom line: He should have known better. Only Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly are allowed to speak for the league on these matters, and everyone else risks enormous penalties if he utters so much as a sentence.
Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula declined to answer a reporter's question about the lockout last week, saying: "I can't tell you anything, just that talks continue -- I don't want to lose draft picks." He laughed, but the league didn't. According to the New York Times, the league office phoned the Sabres with a warning.
But here is the shame of the whole thing: In a statement, Daly said the Wings and the league agree that Devellano's comments are "neither appropriate, nor authorized, nor permissible under the league's by-laws. Such comments are neither constructive nor helpful to the negotiations." Daly didn't say Devellano's comments were untrue. The problem is that they were true, or essentially true to the owners' mindset, and the truth hurts.
The other problem is that when the league muzzles the owners and executives -- actually, when the owners and executives muzzle themselves -- if one person speaks to one news outlet, it blows up into a much bigger deal than it should be.
If everyone could and would speak his mind, every comment would carry less weight. Instead, we have to parse the words of the one guy who slips up. Instead, the NHL fines a team for the words of a Hall of Famer -- a 69-year-old man who helped build the New York Islanders from an expansion team into a dynasty, who helped rebuild the Red Wings from a fallen giant into a model franchise -- and the league looks more draconian than it did already.
The owners have locked out the players for the third time in 18 years. They have done it even though they cancelled the 2004-05 season, even though they got their salary cap, even though they got the players to take a 24-percent rollback -- even though they have recorded record revenues every year since.
Don't you want to hear from Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, the president of the board of governors? Don't you want to hear from owners like the Philadelphia Flyers' Ed Snider or the Washington Capitals' Ted Leonsis, who are involved in the negotiations? Don’t you want to hear from the owner of whatever team you follow? Don't you want an honest explanation from their own mouths? Don't you want to hear why they need or want the players to take an immediate pay cut and so much less of hockey-related revenue? Don't you want to know why they don't like the players' revenue-sharing plan?
The owners are smart enough to know that it is easier to keep up a united front and stay on message if they let only two people do the talking. They are also smart enough to know that it is cleaner to stay above the fray and let Bettman and Daly do the dirty work. That is partly what they pay them for. It might be easier for the owners to make up with the players and fans when this is all over, whenever this is all over.
But if the owners are really united, what are they afraid of? That we'll see them for what they are? All Devellano really did was say some things we already know but aren't used to hearing out loud.
Take the "cattle" comment: "The owners can basically be viewed as the ranch, and the players, and me included, are the cattle. The owners own the ranch and allow the players to eat there. That's the way it's always been and the way it will be forever, and the owners simply aren't going to let a union push them around. It's not going to happen."
Bulletin-board material for the union, but not a new idea at all. It apparently does not go back to NHL outside counsel Bob Batterman, as some inside the hockey world say (and as I wrote Friday). Batterman said in an e-mail Saturday: "I never said anything remotely similar." But it apparently does go back to 1982, when Dallas Cowboys owner Tex Schramm told NFL Players Association representatives: "You're the cattle. We're the ranchers." And it's simply an inelegant way of stating the management perspective -- the owners are the employers, the players the employees. The billionaires make them millionaires. (The players say they are the product, too.)
Take the collusion allusion: Devellano referred to the Flyers' signing of Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber to an offer sheet and said: "I will tell you there is an unwritten rule that you don't do that, but they did, and just like everything else in life, some people are great to deal with, some aren't. If you are asking me if it's right, I would say there is, again, an unwritten rule … We all know it in the NHL, but not everyone follows it."
Not the wisest thing to say, not with Fehr leading the players' union. But don't we all know there is an unwritten rule by now? Didn't Brian Burke challenge Kevin Lowe to a barn fight because of an offer sheet? Isn't that a lot more shocking than this comment? If Fehr is going to prove collusion, it isn't going to be because Devellano acknowledged the obvious. It's going to be because Fehr proved the teams worked together and weren't deterred from signing offer sheets by the high compensation cost, which was negotiated by the league and union into the CBA.
Take the defense of Bettman: "A lot of folks truly believe he is the driving force behind all the decisions on how owners proceed. Some of this is true, but I can tell you he is directed by 30 separate business owners who all give him advice, and he has to take all of this and come back to all of them with what makes the most sense as a group. Not an easy thing to do, but he does it and does it well. Don't forget, too, that these owners aren't dumb guys, and they are very aggressive men who run multi-million- and multi-billion-dollar companies. They want results and don't want to hear excuses and complaints as to what their employees may want."
Maybe that's the ugliest truth of all. Though this lockout is another black mark on Bettman's record and an indictment of his leadership, Bettman is the commissioner because the owners want him to be the commissioner. He got a raise because the owners gave him a raise. He has locked out the players because the owners wanted him to lock out the players. Bettman gets booed, Bettman takes the heat, Bettman lays down the law, while the owners sit in the shadows -- so the owners can sit in the shadows -- silent.
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