No End in Sight to NHL Lockout

This week, the NHL and NHLPA tried a bizarre approach to their slow-moving CBA negotiations, removing Commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Donal Fehr from the bargaining table in the hopes that the owners and players could work directly to find common ground. While in theory it was a good idea, in practice it served only to set the players up for a bad public relations hit. Making matters worse, the scorched earth from this week’s failed negotiations means we shouldn’t bet on NHL hockey resuming anytime soon. Here are some of the quotes that came out of this week’s botched negotiations…

Ron Burkle, Pittsburgh Penguins Owner
“The idea to put players and owners together in the same room was a refreshing idea… We made substantial movement on our end quickly, but unfortunately that was not met with the same level of movement from the other side… We were therefore surprised when the Fehrs made a unilateral and “non-negotiable” decision – which is their right, to end the player/owner process that has moved us farther in two days than we moved at any time in the past months.”

Larry Tannenbaum, Toronto Maple Leafs
“The sessions on Tuesday felt cooperative with an air of goodwill… However, when we reconvened with the players on Wednesday afternoon, it was like someone had thrown a switch. The atmosphere had completely changed. Nevertheless, the owners tried to push forward and made a number of concessions and proposals, which were not well-received. I question whether the union is interested in making an agreement. I am very disappointed and disillusioned. Had I not experienced this process myself, I might not have believed it. Like all hockey fans, I am hopeful this situation can be resolved as soon as possible. I miss our game.”

Anonymous “Depth” Player
“We were ready to play again,” the player said, according to Denver Post and SI.com writer Adrian Dater. “But Don (Fehr) came in (Wed.) and told us we could get more and to hold out.”

Judging from these sound bytes, one would easily conclude that the owners have approached this process in a conciliatory way, and that the players union’s greed is what’s extending the work stoppage. But one shouldn’t judge these negotiations from sound bytes, and one shouldn’t presume any good faith on the owners’ parts. The labor history of the NHL is filled with exploitation and abuse, and it’s shameful that the media isn’t taking the owners to task for trying to get the players to negotiate a deal without well-informed representation.

The next time you’re faced with an important negotiation in your life – purchasing a house, finalizing a divorce, facing criminal charges, etc. – consider whether you’d want to do so without proper representation. No disrespect is intended towards the players here, but their work experience (as professional hockey players) has done absolutely nothing to prepare them for labor contract negotiations with owners who have likely already dealt with similar negotiations in the businesses that made them wealthy enough to afford NHL teams. The owners attempted to take advantage of the players this week, and though the ploy didn’t yield a new CBA, it gave the owners a terrific boost in the ongoing PR war. Now, the message is that the players’ representation stood in the way of getting a deal done.

As for the anonymous “depth” player, this negotiation really isn’t about him. This negotiation is all about the star players who command the big salaries and long (?) contracts, the players whose names are on the backs of tens (if not hundreds) of $150-$200 jerseys at every game. The anonymous “depth” player isn’t any more important in this negotiation than the AHL/ECHL players who will likely be called upon should the NHL owners attempt to ice rosters filled with replacement players. It’s possible that the fans won’t care, that they’re only rooting for “laundry.”

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If that’s so, the players have severely overplayed their hands. But if it’s not the case – if the fans who watch NHL hockey do so because it features the world’s greatest players – then the players have every right to try to secure the best/fairest deal they can.

Remember, the players were more than willing to continue playing under the expired CBA. While it was lauded on the owners’ side as a huge victory back in 2005, the truth is that the expired CBA was an incredibly flawed agreement based upon the faulty premise that a compilation of 30 teams’ independently-generated incomes would yield a total that could effectively be used as the measuring stick by which the salary cap and payroll floor would be calculated.

As a result, the Maple Leafs, Bruins, Flyers and Rangers (to name four teams) were able to enjoy record profits, their player costs artificially curtailed by the salary cap while their revenues continued to increase. Meanwhile, the league’s economic bottom-feeders got squeezed more each year by a payroll minimum that quickly grew beyond their means. The obvious solution – substantially more revenue sharing to ensure a stronger, healthier league – wasn’t one that the NHL owners were terribly interested in pursuing. Instead, they’ve taken the approach that reducing the players’ share will solve the problem, and (perhaps) that the inclusion of two additional teams (via expansion) will provide the cash to make up whatever differences exist.

The two sides should really be working together, taking a hard look at the business as a whole and figuring out ways to collectively make it stronger. Instead, they’ve wasted countless hours arguing about contract lengths and existing contract dollars and free agency rights and salary caps and payroll minimums and even defining hockey-related revenue on the local level. None of those things will help the business grow, and focusing on those details is not getting a deal done for the second time in less than 10 years.

Much has also been made about the NHL’s income growth (from $400 million to $3.2 billion during Gary Bettman’s time as commissioner), and it is impressive. But the other major sports have also enjoyed astronomical growth during that time; the Dodgers’ next local TV deal by itself may be worth $240 million/year. Perhaps the NHL’s numbers should be more like $4-$5 billion, if not higher. And if the NHL’s revenue numbers – in particular the league income that gets shared by all 30 teams – were substantially higher, the team-by-team income disparities wouldn’t be such a voluminous issue.

Unfortunately, it’s probably going to be quite some time before the NHL hits the ice again. Back in September, I predicted that the puck wouldn’t drop for an NHL game until January 2014. Judging from the events of the past week, that prophesy is sadly looking like it’s going to be accurate. Because unless the two sides really start to work together – with the owners accepting that the players have truly formidable representation for arguably the first time in their existence rather than trying to end-around the players into a bad deal – it’s hard to see this dispute getting settled anytime soon.

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One Response to “No End in Sight to NHL Lockout”

  1. Holly Lynn Goddard
    December 12, 2012 at 9:51 am #

    I was using this article for my English assignment, and when I read the part about the players having a right to secure the best/fairest deal, I instantly knew this had to be said! They are playing the sport they love, but they are also out there to make their fans happy. I think they deserve the best they can get.