Friday, November 23, 2012

Billy Conn

I wrote about this years ago and its apropos to what I'm about to say.

I'm so old (HOW OLD ARE YOU? (and if you get that gag you're my age)) that I remember when boxing mattered. I remember watching heavyweight title fights with my grandfather and dad in my grandparents' house in Pincourt, a suburb of Montreal. Ali. Norton. Foreman. Joe Frazier. Earnie Shavers. Spinks. Larry Holmes. On regular TV, none of this pay per view crap!!

Boxing may have died anyway, anyone who has seen poor Shawn O'Sullivan certainly can see why its best if it went away but I wonder sometimes if it would still be as big as it was before it started going to Pay per View and all that. Out of sight out of mind and I'm sure I'm simplifying it all. The corruption, the multiple associations, the lack of charismatic stars, I guess they all contributed.

Anyway when I was a kid I knew boxers past and present and my favourite old timey story was Billy Conn's first bout with Joe Louis. Here is what I wrote a few years back:

One of the great sports stories, certainly one of my favourites, is the story of Billy Conn. Conn was the light heavyweight champion of the world back in the day, a great fighter, and his fight with Joe Louis is considered one of the greatest fights of all time. Louis outweighted Conn by over thirty pounds when they met in 1941; both men were in their prime but Conn was the heavy underdog.

For twelve rounds of the thirteen round bout Conn beat Louis. Going into the final round Conn had the fight clearly won. His corner advised him to stay clear of Louis for the final round; the fight was won, there was no need to go after the bigger man.

So Conn charges out for the final round and goes for the knockout.

Louis knocks him out with two seconds left.

After the fight Conn was asked why, with the fight so clearly won, he threw caution (and sense) to the wind. He answered that he was an Irishman and it was his nature. He had to go for the knockout.

He had no regrets. He's rather lose being true to himself then win hanging back.


Got in a discussion on the Twitter today and figured I'd expand on it here. I fucking love twitter, its mental, but sometimes its hard to get your point across, it can get fragmented.

Here's the thing. There's a lot of noise surrounding this whole mess. You have your hockey 'journalists' (HAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAAH sorry, oh jeez), many who are in the pocket of one side or the other. You have player agents, representatives of the owners and the players and you have the fans, many of whom are biased one way or the other, some who are not.

I'd like to think I'm in the middle of it or at least that I am unbiased. I know people who are kneejerk for the owners and I know people who are the same for the players. Of course there are also a lot who don't care either way.

In 2004 I sided with the owners. It wasn't a question of thinking that the players were greedy or that the owners deserved this or that. I felt the system was out of control. I remember one game I was watching between the Wings and the Oilers and the Wings had a power play and the six guys on the ice made more money than the entire Oilers' roster.

I wanted some competitive balance. So when they introduced a cap and they rolled the players' salaries back I didn't cheer or anything but I wasn't unhappy with the result.

So here we are, seven years later, and the guy who drew the last CBA up is back to try and a)fix what he fucked up last time and b)get more money for his bosses.

Now as to a) well nice job pal and I know the owners like the guy well enough but if I were one I'd be asking where he got his law degree when he wrote a document with loopholes that took clubs and agents about a minute or so to figure out. You fucked a season to get an agreement that you wrote. You got Goodenow's head on a pole outside the city gates. You won. Except you're so dumb that the guys you 'beat' actually won in the end.

Now Lockout Gary really can't win, not until the share is 80/20 for the owners or something like that (so according to the NHL business model, about twenty years or in three more lockouts) because he has a ton of franchises that cannot keep up. Ideally they'd fold eight franchises or so but of course this won't happen and neither is bigtime revenue sharing. So as the cap goes up the zombie franchises will stumble along, bleeding money.

Of course Gary has gotten the owners to pass a law so that he only needs a small minority backing him to do as he sees fit. You see they're his bosses but he's a smart guy. He really is. They may be his bosses but if has a small group on his side then he can drive the bus. And he is. Not all the way, of course, but a lot more than a lot of people think.

Anyhow back to b) and this is the end game here. The owners want more money, its as simple as that, and Damien Cox (first and last time I refer to Mr 'Tom Gilbert and a top prospect for a 7th rounder derp' in a positive manner but oh well, blind squirrel) had it quite right when he referred to the fact that one of Bettman's huge problems is that he can't articulate why the league is doing what its doing other than to say that they want more money. Which is fine, except its hard to sell. The only folks who support the NHL these days are those who figure the owners deserve to make as much money as possible because they're billionaires and ergo they deserve it basically whereas the players should shut up and play and why damnit they should play for nothing its just a game, why I'd play for nothing herkl jerkl derp. And the players are dummies because hockey players.

 (As an aside I know some perfectly lovely folks who support the owners. I do.)

Of course the argument that its just a game and they should play for peanuts is about as stupid as you can get. Its a billion dollar industry and there are less than seven hundred guys who are good enough to get paid. Its capitalism, sort of, and these guys should get paid. My guess is that if it were a true free market they would be getting paid more. Of course for a lot of 'capitalists' capitalism is for the bosses, not the workers, similar to the idea that profits should be private but losses socialized.

Funny double standard there.

Anyhow that's neither here nor there. I would say actually that while some of the players are dumb (come on down take your pick) the vast majority of them know exactly what they are doing. Heck for some of them this is their third work stoppage (LOCKOUT GARY!!) - for guys like Yakupov and Nugent Hopkins this could be the first of three or four for them - so they know the drill. So to say that they are blind or being led against their will or any of that is a bit of nonsense.

 They're going to lose. The best they will get is 50/50 and they've lost some of their cheques already. They'e going to lose. But you know what?


 They're hockey players. They have lived lives that are based on competing for square inches of ice, literally. They have been taught, since they were boys, to play through pain, stick together, fight through the check, don't stay down, don't back down, don't show weakness. In some cases they literally have to fight for their jobs.

 There are men and women all over the world who fight for their rights. They get locked out or they go on strike and sometimes they die and these are people who make a lot less than professional hockey players. They make mere dollars a day, if that. They have everything to lose and often do and yet they do it. Maybe its principle. Maybe its stubbornness. Maybe they do it because they are tired of getting pushed around or being told what to do. But they do it.

 Our company was in a situation a number of years ago where we were for sale and things looked bleak. We would have probably lost our jobs if we had been sold to certain interests. In the end we were bought by our founder and the first thing that happened was that everyone took a paycut. Money was tight. Except a few of us, individually, said no.

 I would not have quit, certainly not, but I told your man that I couldn't take a cut, it wasn't in the cards with a young kid and another on the way and that if I had to then he'd have to understand that I'd do what I had to do.

 I work for great people, it goes without saying. They found some money for me. I stood up for myself and it worked out. And I did so in a case where they could have easily said 'no sorry' and would have been justified doing so.

So why wouldn't NHL players do the same? Why wouldn't they say 'hey honour the contracts we signed this summer', its only what's right. Because it is.

 And here's the other thing. I went searching and (glove tap to Tyler Dellow) checked out the NHLPA constitution and if you look at Article III on Membership you will see the following:

Section 1. All players who are on an NHL Club roster shall be eligible for membership in the Association.
  Because what a lot of people are saying is that the players are throwing away big money (which many are) and for quite a few they will have a short career and this is it for them. They are blowing their only chance at an NHL payday.

 But (and I may be reading this incorrectly but I do not think I am) the fact is that the NHLPA is ~ 700 members. They are the existing roster players on NHL clubs. Lets look at Edmonton's roster, courtesy of CapGeek. We're looking at the roster players. Unless I am mistaken these are the members of the NHLPA. The NHLPA does not include guys like Toni Rajala and Alex Plante.

 How many of these roster guys are fringe NHLers?  How many of them might not be in the NHL next year?

 And look at the money these guys are making and think about what they have made.

 Horcoff, Smyth and Hemsky have all made over thirty million dollars. Hall and Eberle are signed to contracts which will take them over that number. Barring disaster Yakupov and Nugent-Hopkins will do the same. Whitney and Khabibulin have made over twenty million. Nick Schultz has. Sam Gagner, at 23, has made probably over fifteen million.  And you have young Schultz, Petry, Smid and Dubnyk. They're all going to get paid. That's fifteen guys already. Andy Sutton has made over thirteen million over the last five years. Eric Belanger, fringe player, has made eight million over the last five years.

 Do you see where I'm going with this? Then you have Ryan Jones, who has averaged over a million over the last four years and who does enough to have a career for a while yet.

 The number of guys who might really be getting hurt by this lockout? Maybe six guys. And one of them, Teemu Hartikainen, is probably going to win a job with the big club when they start playing again. He's just starting out. If anything the lockout is helping his career. And Darcy Hordichuk has hung around for years, making 800000 a year, year in, year out. Has he blown it? Maybe he's that dumb. Somehow I doubt it.

 So you have Lennart Petrell, Corey Potter, Ben Eager (who has made over six million dollars) and Theo Peckham.

 That's not a big majority of guys fretting about their future. And if Eager has any sense (unlikely I know) he really should be okay as well.

 Now a lot of folks told me today that I don't know the spending habits of these guys but this is what I do know. This is anecdotal but I am a cheap bastard and I would bet money that the vast majority of these guys have more money in the bank than you and I ever will. These are guys who rent houses togther for crying out loud. Rookies live in vets' basements or above their garages. For many of them their idea of a good time is deer hunting in Saskatchewan. They are notoriously cheap. Are some of them dumb? Sure. Will some of them piss their money away? Sure. But the fact that every once in a while a guy like Bryan Trottier goes bust because of bad business decisions does not mean that this is happening to the vast majority of these guys. They have financial advisors. They are businessmen themselves as many old timers moan. Its pretty hard to spend a million bucks when you spend most of your time either playing hockey or preparing to play hockey. A lot of these guys drive beaters for crying out loud. They're Finns and Swedes and Canadians. Have you met my Dad? Have you met me? CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH!

 So lets review. We have a group of guys who are getting asked to take less money even though business is booming by a bunch of billionaires whose representative is an arrogant, smarmy liar. Their profession requires that they be stubborn, that they stick together, they they fight (often literally) for everything. They went through this seven years ago and nearly everybody predicted that this would happen again. And they are, for the most part fabulously wealthy. The older guys have banked more money than you or I will ever see. The younger guys still have their paydays to come. And a large number of them are playing somewhere. They're not making the money they would be in the NHL but they're making money regardless.

 So why are they going to cave again?

 Maybe they do but I suspect that, like Billy Conn, its not their nature to go down without a fight and if that means taking less then so be it. Are they stupid because of it? I don't think so. I know some do but part of this is ingrained in them and part of it is that they can afford it (if they couldn't they'd be playing right now) and part of it is the principle of the thing.

 I know that sounds crazy to us ordinary schmucks, some who are probably struggling to make ends meet, but I don't blame them a damn bit. If I were in their shoes and I could afford it (and I could because I throw nickels around like manhole covers let me tell you) I'd be right at it.



Anonymous said...

I was going to post something clever and profound but my wife just tuned in to Pretty Woman and apparently I have to go.The movie is about a Billionaire Owner who hires employees for his enjoyment.

Bruce said...

Outstanding post, Pat. Not enough has been said about what motivates the players in all this, but I think you nailed it.

Black Dog said...

Thanks Bruce!

Anonymous said...

The only problem with the author's argument is . . . why didn't all these "tough, fighter, stick together, deer hunting in Saskatchewan, etc.," traits work in 2005?

Back then I often chided fans who wanted the players to cave so we'd have a season (we didn't have a season and they still caved; talk about lose-lose) "You can't ask these guys to be kitty-cats at the negotiating table, then expect them to be lions on the ice."

Black Dog said...

anon this is true about 2005, although they did cash in the season before they caved. of course at that point they'd been on a winning streak and probably figured the owners would fall apart

but this time around they're giving back from the start, its a foregone conclusion that they are going to have a lesser share. Still they're fighting.

lost cause though