That’s how most hockey fans must feel with about month remaining until the collective bargaining agreement between NHL owners and players expires (Sept. 15) and training camps are supposed to open.
There’s been little progress in negotiations for a new agreement between the league and players since the league dropped a bombshell in its opening proposal. About the only thing the owners didn’t ask of the players was for them to drive the Zamboni during intermissions.
Perception is important in any public negotiation but apparently the owners -- under the direction of Commissioner Gary Bettman -- couldn’t care less about it, or about the season starting on time. All signs point to it being delayed.
The owners asked the players to take less of the revenue generated, they asked for shorter contract terms and they asked for the end to salary arbitration. They asked for longer entry-level deals and a decade of service before a player can become a free agent. It’s a long list of requests and if the league was being created from thin air then maybe these rules and numbers would all make sense without any precedent.
But here is the bottom line: the owners can’t take back so much they have already given. Not for a league that has generated record revenues and is doing pretty well as a whole. Oh, and just a short time ago the players gave the owners the biggest thing that could be given: a cap on salaries for the first time in the history of the sport.
This is where perception plays a big role. Once again, ownership -- or at least Bettman -- is saying, “We’re going to do what we want and you better follow suit.” It’s all disguised as a negotiation. And anyone that claims, “It’s just an opening proposal,” is fooling themselves. Why does every supposed legitimate negotiation have to open with the ridiculous? Why not come to the table with something reasonable that may favor your side but at least gives the other side something to be excited about? I’ve never been involved in anything close to what’s going on, but doesn’t history suggest new tactics need to be tried?
People might think there is no way Bettman wants a third work stoppage during his tenure, but maybe he doesn’t care. Maybe he wants to be known as the commissioner that keeps on crushing the union. And don’t forget he is supposed to be commissioner of the union as well. But for these purposes he’s simply an extension of ownership -- although he’s also a man with his own convictions. We don’t even know if his convictions coincide with those of his owners.
The big issue last time was the salary cap. The league won out on that after losing a whole season, but the NHL has done all right ever since. The current CBA -- for the most part -- works. Small-market teams can compete and they can acquire stars. Solid talent evaluation, along with managing the salary cap properly, is still paramount. The problem is the same as it almost always is: the owners need to be saved from themselves. And it’s the league asking the players to do just that.
Players were more than happy to sign decade or longer contracts that were offered to them; it gave them security they could never imagine. But it was the teams doing the offering and it also circumvented the salary cap to a degree. And now it has made it harder for trades to be consummated -- look no further than Roberto Luongo. So maybe that is an area where players need to give a little. A tweak to the system here or there makes sense and the players can be convinced of it. But to overhaul something that’s worked stinks of greed. There is no other explanation.
The big-market owners are more than happy with the current system -- or at least they should be. The last work stoppage created the cap which, again, saved the (big-market) owners from themselves. Instead of being pressured to spend more and more every year because their competition was doing so, they had a number they couldn’t exceed. “Perfect,” thought many owners. Make no mistake, the implementation of the salary cap was the best thing for the big-market owners in the league. But it didn’t necessarily save the small market teams.
That’s where Bettman wants the players to help out. His thinking seems to be, “Let’s take some of your money and spread it out to these smaller markets so they can survive.” Maybe he should have told Minnesota and Nashville as much when they were able to sign big-money free agents this summer -- including huge money up front to the players. That’s something no one expected out of the Wild and Predators. The system, as a whole, does work. That should be the point of the collective bargaining agreement between owners and players. Making sure the league or its owners are financially secure shouldn’t be the primary concern of the players. Of course, it’s in their best interests if the league is healthy but an agreement between the players and the owners should simply help that notion not make it so.
Every issue is complicated, that much we know. Take contraction for example. Maybe the league should never have expanded into some non-traditional hockey markets, so eliminating those teams could make sense. But would the NHLPA ever be in favor of eliminating jobs? Again, taking back what was already given is a hard sell. I doubt we’d see the owners giving back those rights fees acquired during expansion. But what if it was in the best interest of the remaining players if 20-40 or more jobs were eliminated by contracting a team or two? How would NHLPA union boss Donald Fehr answer that question?
Then again, though the players have a vested interest in league revenues, they have no say in how those revenues are obtained. For example, players might like the idea of advertisements on their jerseys -- like the NBA just approved -- but the league office might say no. And there is little doubt a second team in southern Ontario would generate huge money, but none have relocated there to this point. So if the commissioner wants the players to take less of a percentage he might want to maximize his revenue streams.
As stated previously, it’s all very complicated but the players simply seem more willing to engage in a give-and-take. Fehr is no pushover, he’s going to want things as well. But what can he ask for when the league has already asked for everything?
Does the current CBA need some changes? Of course. Does it need to be gutted to the point of games being canceled? Of course not. Bettman simply might not see it that way. Why would he, common sense has never been his strong point.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but work backwards. If the end result nearly every time is a work stoppage, then someone at the top is doing something wrong. He’s got a month or so to figure it all out or back to square one we go.