Last summer, the Los Angeles Kings won the first Stanley Cup in the club’s 45-year history, opening a new fringe fan base in a state with a less prominent ice hockey history than some of its northeast competitors. Kevin Westgarth ’07, who signed with L.A. after ending his college career, built upon the existing Princeton presence in the professional hockey world with a championship ring.
But instead of returning to the ice in October to defend the crown, Westgarth sharpened his ability against equally challenging foes at the negotiating table. Along with George Parros ’03 and other leaders of the National Hockey League Players’ Association, he challenged NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL owners in negotiations over wage shares and other contract issues that kept the players off the ice during a 113-day lockout.
After a fierce 16-hour discussion in a midtown Manhattan hotel, rumors circulated on the morning of Jan. 6 that the NHL and the NHLPA would bring the competition back to the ice and away from the negotiating table. Indeed, both sides have all but promised the fans a 48-game or 50-game schedule after the lockout, the second-longest stoppage in the past decade behind the full-season lockout of 2004-05. The agreement is projected to last 10 years and split total revenues 50-50 between players and owners, similar to the existing CBAs in the NBA and NFL.
The conclusion of the lockout will be welcome news for five Princeton alumni. Parros, Westgarth, Jeff Halpern ’99, Darroll Powe ’07 and Mike Moore ’08 all have existing contracts with NHL teams. Like Westgarth, Parros owns a Stanley Cup ring, which he won with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
The agreement came after months of intermittent negotiations between the players and the owners, represented by Bettman, a man whom many view as responsible for the frustratingly long lockout length. At the turn of the year, Bettman announced that a deal needed to be reached by Jan. 11 in order to give teams a one-week training camp before opening the season on Jan. 19v or the possibility of a condensed season would be out of the question. Westgarth and the players, however, felt the deadline was merely a bargaining ploy.
“The commissioner has to some degree put undue pressure on the players at various stages of the talks. I understand certain concerns — no one wanted to get to the point where we played a 10-game schedule — but the Jan. 11 deadline, among other demands, were just constructs of the negotiating process,” Westgarth said.
“This whole thing could have been done in half of a day,” Halpern said. “After the ’04 lockout, a 57 percent revenue share for the players was agreed upon, and the league was putting up a stance that a lot of teams couldn’t afford that. That particular issue should have become the driving force in these negotiations — how much players versus owners get.”
But other issues, such as contracting rights and long-term contract restrictions, clouded the most pressing discussion point, Halpern said, prolonging the negotiations.
“To have such love and passion from so many people toyed with for so many months and in this way is disgusting and a turnoff to a lot of people,” he added.
Now that questions over how to split revenue, salary arbitration and the length of unrestricted free agency seem to have been settled, perhaps the largest uphill battle remains: how to win back the trust of the fans.
“A lot of models I’ve looked at are projected on a continued revenue increase that the NHL was able to establish in the past few seasons [after the] 2004-05 lockout, but I would be upset if I were a fan on the outside,” explained Moore, who plays for the Worcester Sharks, a minor-league affiliate of San Jose. “I know it’s a business, and I have to fight for my rights, so I’m looking at the issue from a different perspective, even though I’m currently a minor-leaguer. But ultimately this is a sport, and its success is based off the fans. It’s too bad because we as players have to fight hard to get those fans back.”
In places like Los Angeles, where the Stanley Cup win created an immediate explosion of hockey fandom, the league will likely struggle to recreate the same excitement toward the sport.
“I’ll give the example of Grant Goeckner-Zoeller [’07], who started playing hockey because Wayne Gretzky went down to L.A. in ’88 after ‘The Trade.’ Grant was an unbelievable teammate at Princeton, and he was an unbelievable player with unbelievable hands,” Moore said. “It could be something like that after last year. I wouldn’t doubt if kids were picking up a stick and skates because of the popularity that came with the Kings’ win. With any lockout you could potentially lose a future incredible player, a player like Grant.”
Halpern, a veteran with the league who has made seven playoff appearances since he began his NHL career in 1999 with the Washington Capitals, identified a point addressed by a recent NBC Sports poll that asked if fans would come back to the NHL, drawing 50,000 responses. Of those who followed hockey to some degree before the lockout, 30 percent said either they would no longer dedicate their time to watching the sport or they would take a wait-and-see approach. The league will need many of those fans to return, especially if it wants to compete with last year’s record-breaking numbers. In the 2011-12 season, revenues reached about $3.4 billion, and franchise values also reached a new high of $282 million on average.
After the 2004-05 NHL lockout, the uphill battle for fans was essentially nonexistent. When games resumed in October 2005, attendance actually increased for most teams. The Pittsburgh Penguins saw the biggest jump, with a 33 percent increase in attendance shortly after superstar Sidney Crosby made his debut in the NHL. Top players like Halpern, who entered the league well before the ’04 lockout, provided the hardcore base of viewers the option of watching them play overseas.
During the 2004 stoppage, Halpern played for the Kloten Flyers and for HC Ajoie in Switzerland before returning to the Capitals when the lockout ended. This time around, Halpern stayed local and even regained contact with both his Washington, D.C. and Princeton roots.
“There’s a group of ’05 players that played for the Caps, so since I live around [D.C.], I got to be with my family during that part of the week. Then I drove up to Princeton to skate with the team on a Wednesday night, and then I drove up to New York to skate with [my Rangers teammates] on a Thursday night, and then I drove home to do it all over again,” he said. “It’s been a huge luxury for me to be able to skate at Princeton, to have a full practice and feel like a part of a team with about 24 guys on the ice.”
Time will tell whether fans will be as excited as these Princeton alumni for their return to the ice.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2013/01/09/32244/