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History should speed up CBA talks

August 10, 2012

Some people never learn. Of course, when you’re talking millions and millions of dollars, it is hard to figure out any sort of logic.

The last time hockey fans were facing labor talks between the owners and Players Association, a lockout was nearly a certainty. What resulted was a lost season, a crap TV contract, fan apprehension and a complete loss of respect from a sports network capable of pumping any event full of propaganda.

Maybe losing any sort of foothold on ESPN’ airwaves was a minor setback, but “the worldwide leader” is nothing more than a televised tabloid capable of steering sports fans interest towards a singular message if they so choose. Regardless, the lost season in 2004-05 was a massive setback for the NHL and caused the necessity for a whole lot of rebuilding.

Only seven years later we are almost back to where we started. Salaries have ballooned (thanks to skyrocketing revenues) and the owners are getting over their heads when it comes to paying out cash. With just over a month to go, it appears as if the worst may be on the horizon, another lockout.

Gary Bettman came out yesterday and explained that the owners will not play another season under the current CBA, despite the players’ willingness to do so. No shocker there. The players not only are willing to play under a CBA that has seen the salary cap grow by leaps and bounds, but they also stole any and all good press the league may have been able to muster.

September 15 is the drop dead date at this point. When that day comes (this is no longer an “if” scenario), the work stoppage will have officially begun. Now, there is certainly a chance that the two parties will resolve the issue prior to the start of the season, but I think that may be unlikely. It seems more realistic that a deal will be worked out sometime in October with games getting rolling in November.

If that is the case, it won’t be a total wash. However, if the NHL encroaches anywhere beyond a month and a half with no games, they will be encroaching on the same territory they did in 2004. Not only have revenues skyrocketed in the past seven years, interest has as well. The league has benefitted from the Olympics, Sidney Crosby and major media markets having postseason success. The NHL is rounding back into form in the national spotlight, just in time for a work stoppage to destroy that goodwill.

Even ESPN is saying that the fans should take off should the league follow their tarnished footsteps from 2005. While I would never encourage any fan to leave the NHL behind, I wouldn’t blame them for the decision.

Who is to blame isn’t the issue for me. It certainly is an issue, of course. The owners trashed the NHLPA the last time around, only to see the league grown beyond the confines of the previously acceptable CBA they negotiated. Ownership is now trying to backtrack once again in hopes of keeping as much money earned away from the players. Of course, if you’re looking to lay blame on one group, the owners are the ones to point at.

Obviously the players aren’t going to be willing to give up their (big) piece of the revenue pie. Nor are they going to be interested in redefining hockey-related revenue that would circumvent the rules governing revenue sharing. However, they need to use some common sense.

The players currently get 57% of revenues. That is a ridiculous amount of money. Somewhere between 57% and the sub-50% figure the owners trotted out is a fair number for revenues. And that is where the labor talks will ultimately stall.

Rule changes, travel and realignment will play a role in CBA talks, make no mistake. But the sticking point will always be about money. The owners are foolish to think they will be able to roll back salaries, take a bigger chunk or revenues and siphon off additional money-making sources. Of course, the players are foolish to think that the owners are going to allow the salary base grow at an unchecked rate without some form of alteration made.

Common ground needs to, and will be found. But it needs to be done soon. Perhaps it is time for common sense to win out and both sides to simply buckle down and get to brass tacks. Hell, Donald Fehr might step out on Tuesday and offer up a counter-offer that is very close to where the owners ultimately want to end up. I doubt it, but stranger things have happened.

As a hockey fan all I want to see is a quick end to the labor talks so the season can start on time. I couldn’t give a damn about how much the players are making because it is more than I’ll make in a lifetime and they aren’t willing to share (I take PayPal). I really couldn’t give a damn about how much the owners are making because those 30 guys have more money than I care to fathom. Actually, there are 28 really rich guys, one guy who can’t seem to pay his bills and a guy who probably won’t have the capital to run the team he just bought. Regardless, they won’t share with me.

This is a battle between rich guys who go get beaten up for eight months a year against some super rich guys who don’t have much grounds for argument over needing more money. This battle, however, is threatening a product that millions of people love and that millions more will be willing to accept so long as growth can continue.

That growth will be halted if another lockout rolls around. The depth of the loss will be determined by the length of the lockout, but there will certainly be some loss. Whether it is fed up fans, snarky media members or even players; there will be plenty of napalm tossed at the NHL for failing to avoid the same obstacle that wrecked them seven years earlier.

This lesson should have been learned the minute the puck dropped in 2005. Even the unforseen growth shouldn’t have gotten in the way. The league should have known any sort of work stoppage would be horribly detrimental to their image and bottom line. Of course, the bottom line is why they’re in this pickle. Strange how it is so tought to figure these things out.

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