It seems like such a short time ago that fans were clamoring for details on the labor strife in the NHL. Seven short years it has been since the last lockout and the NHL seems set on yet another.
All it took was a lost season and fans for the owners and players to come to an agreement in 2004-05. Granted, the players were poorly represented and the league as a whole was in desperate need of an overhaul to the CBA. Yet the rapid growth the NHL has enjoyed since the last lockout has done little more to muddy the waters between the NHLPA and owners.
Point fingers if you must at the greedy millionaires and billionaires. Point fingers at Gary Bettman for trotting towards his third work stoppage. Point fingers at whoever you need to blame in this situation. Just understand that this is a two-way street but the owners are driving a much wider vehicle.
By no means am I a CBA expert, so I won’t try and talk number percentages or about any of the other specific details that will ultimately be hammered out over the next few days, weeks and months.
What is so perplexing in this entire scenario is the glaring ignorance portrayed by both sides. The league and owners, as a group, are far and away the greater perpetrators here but the NHLPA should not be fully absolved of blame. Fact is that both sides took their sweet time to talk despite staring at a situation that pointed towards a drawn out negotiating process.
The writing was on the wall. The NHL was enjoying incredible revenues each season, the players were receiving larger and larger contracts while also eating a significant portion of the revenue pie. All of this came with a number of clubs fighting just to stay afloat financially in a system with a cap ceiling and floor that was continuing to rise. Obviously a number of changes needed to be made.
Even towards the end of the 20101-11 season, fans and media alike were pointing to this past summer as one that needed to be full of action. However, it wasn’t until late into the dog days that any sort of meetings began to take place. Both sides can posture as if they were prepared and willing to begin talks in the winter or even earlier than that. But that is a terribly phony statement to stand behind. In fact, I remember Gary Bettman referencing the summer as when he wanted to begin negotiating on at least one occasion.
The other obvious problem comes directly from the owners. They fought and won handily in 2005. Not only did the owners get their precious cap and massive salary rollbacks, but they throttled the players in overall talks as they formed a system that was nearly a perfect model of what they wanted. However, the owners destroyed their own system, exploited loopholes and created a mess that is nearly equivalent to what they faced the last time this bus pulled into the station.
Massive contracts that have been awarded over the past few seasons have continued, despite the owners asking for more money in terms of revenue sharing. The $100 million-plus deals given out in July morphed into the numerous multi-year deals that every player and his five bros have been given over the past month. For all their talk, the owners seem fully willing to shell out major dollars to the very party their fighting to take money from. Webster may have a different definition, but that is an awfully good example of hypocrisy.
The players, of course, are somewhat remiss in expecting to not come off the current system as it stands. This is something that Donald Fehr appears to be fully aware of; the NHLPA’s first offer is a perfect example of that. Pitting the poor small market teams against the fat cat large market organizations is one way to keep the owners from collaborating on a CBA that would leach money from the players union.
However, the players must be aware that they will need to come off the magic number of 57% of revenue sharing. I gather that they could likely see some concessions in terms of cap figures and salary rollbacks if they were willing to regress to a percentage that is far closer to 50/50. Of course, that is nothing more than conjecture.
A lockout is all but inevitable at this point, with the official drop dead date just two days away. Since the season won’t be starting for another month from now, there is still plenty of time to hammer out a deal. But rolling past the 15th without any sort of agreement spells trouble in terms of shortened training camp, cancelled preseason games and the threat of missing a handful of games to start the year.
Both sides certainly have valid arguments for the points they won’t come off of. However, they both look like rich, spoiled jerks on a number of other fronts. Perhaps, if both sides had used their heads, they could have started talks at a normal time and added at least three or more months to the negotiating process. That way they wouldn’t risk alienating their strong fans and losing the casual fans they started to win over.
The fans, the overlooked party here, could be the biggest blow to both the players and owners. Yet again, the owners are the ones who stand to lose more. There are a whole host of angry fans out there who love hockey but hate the mess that comes from CBA negotiations. There is even a contingent of fans ready to boycott the league should a lockout occur. While those fans will eventually come back, the casual fans will not. If that layer of the NHL’s fanbase disappears for another handful of seasons, the road to recovery will be long.
The risk of losing a large portion of fans (and the revenue they generate) should be more terrifying to the owners – and players by extension of revenue sharing – as the reality of a lockout draws near.
It is a sad reality to think that another lockout is on the horizon. Perhaps both sides will realize the cost of their fight and remedy the situation before destroying a portion of their fan base.