September 12, 2012; New York, NY, USA; NHLPA executive director Don Fehr speaks during a press conference at the 2012 NHLPA summer player meetings at the Marriott Marquis. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE

NHL Lockout 2012: Playing Chicken

The Carolina Hurricanes’ home opener was supposed to happen today. Home openers are a big deal, but the Hurricanes’ is something of an event, since it only happens after the fair clears out of Raleigh. Is it a bummer that it’s not happening this year? Yep. Which leads me to the subject of today’s post: playing NHL lockout chicken.

I’m sure most people played chicken as a kid. It’s a dumb game and thus perfect for a certain grade of child. Myself, I played it just before I moved to NC as a kid, up in Maryland. It was mostly on a dare from my sister: run down the hill, jump in front of the bus, stand there as it got closer, worrying I’d be smushed and kind of delighted by it all. Looking back, there was only a very slight chance I’d get caught considering, you know, that I was doing it at a bus stop. But at the time, I had the thrill of risk-taking, until my mom found out and smacked me and forbade me to do it again.

Any kind of negotiation is a form of grown-up chicken. Half of it is bluffing, and the other half is trying to call your opponent’s bluff. It’s incredibly true that negotiations like this are full of dishonest bids for the public’s sympathy, but that’s just how this kind of thing tends to go. If image didn’t matter, we’d have a considerably easier time of it (though it would be harder to find news to report). But, of course, image does matter. And so the posturing drags on.

But the thing with chicken – the thing that makes it such an excellent children’s game even while adults recognize how crazy it is – is that you have to have some level of trust that your opponent will bend. I was playing chicken with a children’s bus driver. In the realm of leaping in front of moving vehicles, that’s fairly low-risk. But the NHL and NHLPA are playing chicken with each other and, to some extent, the public. When you’re gambling months or a year off a career, hundreds of millions of dollars, sports loyalties that turn a team into a dynasty…how much trust are you going to have then? How willing are you to stand stubbornly and wait for the other side to hit the brakes?

I don’t begrudge the NHLPA their stance, not remotely. But I do wonder how long they can hold out. They’re not going to tell the public how they actually feel about losing a year any more than they’re going to let it slip how long they can, financially, keep it up. I am curious, though, as a spectator with a lot of time on her hands. The NHL owners are a powerful, monied group. I wouldn’t say the NHLPA is playing chicken with a school bus as much as a freight train. The lockout might end with a whimper in a few weeks, or even a month or two, and I’m sure analysts of all stripes will spend months after that calculating the loss of it all. In the meantime, the NHL’s brand is falling, their teams are losing visibility, and the players are losing salary.

I won’t lie, it makes the kid in me want to stomp my foot and take my toys home.

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