By Ted Montour, Canada/NLL Editor
The NLL managed to contract, expand and re-align all in one off-season.
The Ottawa Rebel joined their sister Montreal Express in hibernation, as serial owner/operator Brad Watters shifted his sights from a Champion's Cup to a Grey Cup; his Canadian Football League Ottawa Renegades, 7 - 11 in their sophomore season, will host the CFL championship in 2004. While the requiem for the Rebel started at the end of the '02 season, and the move from Albany to San Jose had been rumored for some time, the announcement that the Saints, the 'deans' of pro box along with the Wings, would not operate in 2004, came as a something of a shock.
New York owner and League curmudgeon Mike Gongas was no more able to sustain multiple ownership than Watters. Indeed, he was handed a two-year suspension by Commissioner Jim Jennings. The Landsharks franchise slipped from his grasp and went to an Arizona ownership group that includes the NHL Coyotes and former minor box lacrosse player and all-time hockey great Wayne Gretzky. After just two seasons, the New Jersey Storm were re-located to Anaheim, and just like that, the NLL has a six-team West division and a four-team East, and 46 fewer roster spots in the midst of negotiations on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement --and therein hangs a tale.
Autumn was low-lighted by exchanges of accusations of bargaining in bad faith, not bargaining at all, striking and strike-breaking. The NLL owners, after first threatening to play 2004 with replacement players, then to not play 2004 at all, agreed with the Professional Lacrosse Players Association to play the season under the terms of the old Collective Bargaining Agreement, and resume negotiations.
The owners wanted a long-term agreement, the players a shorter one; the owners proposed lower pay scales, the players wanted, at minimum, not to lose ground on the old CBA. As pro sport labor relations go, this was nowhere near as acrimonious as, say, the birth of the NHL Players Association, but at least both sides came sufficiently down to earth to see the common sense in continuing to play and talk at the same time, something that could just as easily have been going on last winter.
Some players appeared to break ranks and prematurely sign on for the new season, but ultimately, there was no crossing of picket lines or confrontations between lacrosse-playing brethren. The owners' threat to play with replacement players was abandoned almost as soon as it was made, and could never have flown anyway - we don't have near enough "household name" players, or teams. With a short season and part-time players, many fans, more particularly many potential fans, would likely have taken minimal notice, and where would that have left the League?
We already see more than enough 'who cares' attitude from mainstream sports media. Several owners have already walked away from clubs and contractual obligations. One season abandoned would have been fatal.