July 27, 2012
For those of you out there that are hockey fans, you probably already know that the collective bargaining agreement between the National Hockey League and the NHL Players Association expires on September 15. We’ve seen both the NFL and the NBA deal with similar situations in the past year, with football getting things together in time for the start of preseason and then an exciting regular season.
The NBA meanwhile, had a prolonged work stoppage that didn’t lead until meaningful games being played until Christmas and a truncated 66 game schedule that saw teams playing on back-to-back-to-back nights. This led to teams resting star players and creating debacle games like the Heat/Celtics matchup on April 24. In that game, a 78-66 Boston win, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo all were out of action. Talk about a treat for the fans.
Meanwhile, the NHL, the last time they were in this situation, didn’t bother resolving ANYTHING in a timely fashion. The league lost the entire 2004-05 season due to a lockout, which marked the first time since 1919 that the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded. At least that year was due to a Spanish flu epidemic, not quibbling over millions of dollars. One has to wonder if the NHL is headed down that same road once again in 2012.
The league’s original proposal to the NHLPA called for a rollback of 11 percent of the revenues of the league earmarked for the players, from 57 percent to 46. They also proposed to redefine what “hockey related revenue” consists of, in an effort to further decrease the pot for players. The two corresponding moves would effective drop player salaries by 22 percent from a year ago, a similar decline to the 24 percent that was implemented following the lockout of 2004-05. The league also is advocating longer entry level contracts and making free agency require ten years of service as opposed to seven.
The main reason to all this of course, is money. The owners saw the NFL and NBA take the players to task, curtailing their cut of the profits to a more even split. That said, it’s not as if the league is fiscally struggling: since the lockout in 2004-05, revenues are up a full 50 percent to $3.3 billion, and the league has a decent television contract to boot. Certainly, the league will point to the fact that there are many teams that are barely breaking even or lodged in the red due to either location or a myriad of other issues, but these issues haven’t curbed the ridiculous spending of some clubs during the offseason.
In recent years, we’ve seen Ilya Kovalchuk sign a contract that covered 15 years and $100 million. In this offseason alone, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter went to the Minnesota Wild on 13 year deals worth $98 million, while Jordan Staal inked a 10 year extension with the Carolina Hurricanes worth $60 million after being traded from the Pittsburgh Penguins last month. The biggest bombshell as far as free agent offers came last week, when the Philadelphia Flyers tossed out an offer sheet to Nashville defenseman Shea Weber, to the tune of 14 years and $110 million. Mull that over for a minute while we cover the important details.
Not only would the numbers involved be staggering on merit alone, the numbers get more daunting when broken down. Weber will make $27 million in the next calendar year alone and will be paid $68 million in bonuses over the next six years all together. It was the classic flexing of muscle by a larger market team capable of taking on large salaries due to a rabid fan base trying to push around a smaller market club to benefit themselves. Never mind the fact that the owners are crying about a lack of revenue; that argument doesn’t hold much water when teams are throwing out contracts worth nine figures, now does it?
As it turned out, Philadelphia was unable to bully Nashville, who decided to match the offer sheet to Weber on Tuesday. In a move that was surprising to many due to the usual financial restrictions involved with a smaller market club, the Predators locked Weber down and will keep his services for more than likely the remainder of his career. Had Nashville decided not to match, the team would have received four first round draft choices from the Flyers as compensation for Weber.
The routine of owners crying about being in the poorhouse due to players getting too large a cut of the revenue pot has grown stale. After all, it was the owners that implemented a salary cap following the lockout back in 2004-05 to give every team an opportunity to be on the same level playing field. Instead, it seems that the ownership groups haven’t grasped that concept, as they continue to shower players with deals that run into double digit years for dollar amounts in the high eight and nine figure amounts over the life of the deal.
How does the NHL plan to cry poverty when it is the ones that own the franchises and giving the go ahead to their respective general managers to make the offers in the first place? It wasn’t that long ago where two or three million dollars was the top end of salaries in the league; today you can’t sign a competent third line player for that amount of money. While it’s easy to point fingers at the players for their inherent greed and inflating the prices of free agents and entry level players on the market, one has to take into consideration that the players aren’t the ones paying the salaries to begin with. They’re merely attempting to leverage as much money as possible to be financially secure for their post-playing days.
The NHL is at a dangerous crossroads at this point in time. The league, though revenues and such are up, has still not fully recovered from the fallout that came with the last lockout. To have a second one in less than a decade, especially coming on the heels of both the NFL and NBA having labor issues in the past year, has the potential to be devastating to the league as a whole, small market teams and especially Gary Bettman. His confidence level will flatline should there be any sort of holdup whatsoever regarding the 2012-13 season.
What’s the solution? It’s simple: institute a cap and FORCE the owners to work within the parameters of it. No more stashing of veterans on minor league teams so their salaries don’t count against the cap, no more of the ridiculously long contracts. Paying players until they are in their late 30s or early 40s in order to try and decrease the annual cap hit is merely circumvention of the rules in play. There has to be some accountability for the rampant escalation of contract figures and it has to start somewhere. In this case, it would be at the feet of ownership, not the members of the NHLPA.
With savvy minds and constructive negotiations that benefit both sides, there is no reason that this can’t be resolved amicably and have the 2012-13 season go off without a hitch. Should there be the typical negotiations that go on where ownership insistently attempts to slam a square peg into a round hole, it may be a while before we see hockey again. In the United States, where the NHL is a distant fourth among the four major professional sports leagues, that’s akin to a death knell.
Let’s hope that Bettman and company learned from the first round that cost us a season eight years ago. If they haven’t and history repeats itself, don’t put the blame on the players and Donald Fehr. Instead, look at the ones who sign the checks.