NHL owners can't cry poor this time

Never mind the spreadsheets and the pie graphs breaking down the NHL's revenue streams, all union head Donald Fehr needs to do when the NHL and its players sit down to try to hammer out a new labor deal is to bring the clippings from the first four days of free agency.

Zach Parise and Ryan Suter combining for $196 million over the next 13 seasons.

Forty-year-olds Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr combining to bring in a hair more than $9 million next season.

Matt Carle, 20th among NHL defensemen in point production last season, was lured back to Tampa by a six-year deal that will pay him an average of $5.5 million annually.

Jiri Hudler struck it rich with a four-year, $16 million contract after a career-best 25-goal campaign in Detroit.

Brandon Prust -- seriously -- got $10 million over four years to bring toughness to the Montreal lineup.

Every time a new contract was added to the list of bloated contracts that came before, commissioner Gary Bettman must have given a grim shake of his head.

How does a league that announced record revenues this past year -- $3.3 billion and rising -- and trumpeted a bright economic future now turn around and cry poor in trying to squeeze more out of the players' association?

It's more a rhetorical question than anything else because that's exactly what the league will do in the coming weeks as the players and owners work to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement to replace the current one that will end Sept. 15.

As it did in the summer of 2004 -- oh, doesn't that seem like a long, long time ago? -- the league will tell the players they need to give more because the current system still doesn't work.

It is a familiar refrain when it comes to any professional sports negotiations, whether it's football or basketball, both of which lost time to labor scraps in the past year, but is especially repetitive when it comes to hockey, which seems unable to get it right or at least continues to insist it can't get it right.

As with any complex financial machinery that remains very much influenced by factors such as the Canadian dollar, local economies, broadcast deals and the ability of players to stay healthy and perform, this is not a perfect science. And while no obvious major changes need to be made to the system, there may be tweaks, whether it's in terms of a cap on the length of salaries and controlling the drop-off in salary during the length of a deal and the ability of teams to bury salaries in the minors.

The Parise and Suter contracts, for instance, start with $12 million next season and then end up paying each player $1 million annually by contract's end, when it's certainly debatable whether either player will still be playing.

On many levels, this collective bargaining process is dramatically different in tone and tenor than the one that scuttled the entire 2004-05 season. Eight years ago, owners were demanding a seismic change in the structure of the labor agreement; to wit, a salary cap.

And fans, for the most part, were more or less sympathetic, especially as it related to stabilizing small markets, including some smaller markets in Canada.

But even though there isn't one major issue like a salary cap confronting the two sides this time around, the core theme remains the same: the league demanding that the players help the league's teams save themselves from themselves.

Why did the league need a salary cap -- or cost certainty, as Bettman liked to frame it before pulling the plug on an entire season to get it -- because his GMs didn't or wouldn't spend with the interest of the game in mind? They spent with winning in mind. And who could blame Ken Holland in Detroit or Pierre Lacroix in Colorado or Glen Sather in New York for using the assets they had at their disposal (big checkbooks) to lure the best players to their town? The fact that the Nashvilles and Carolinas and Buffalos couldn't match those contracts and thus were perpetually at a competitive disadvantage in terms of keeping their top players or attracting other top players didn't matter to those big-market clubs.

It was the league's job to make sure the playing field was as level as possible, so the NHL sacrificed an entire season to get it.

Now the owners are back looking for even more cost certainty because, as revenues have risen through the roof, the playing field hasn't necessarily remained particularly level.
Teams in New Jersey and Phoenix are in financial distress and the New York Islanders continue to look for a new home, even though parity has meant seven different Stanley Cup winners and 12 different Stanley Cup finalists since the lockout.

The league has a lucrative long-term television deal, skyrocketing European revenues and rising revenues from its multiple platforms such as NHL Network and NHL.com, but as sure as Monday follows Sunday they will want more from the players, who currently receive 57 cents of every dollar of hockey-related revenues.

How far will the league go to get that number reduced? And how much good will is the league willing to trade to get there?

Remember when the first post-lockout salary cap was $39 million? Now the cap is set at $70.2 million, pending the outcome of the current labor talks, and the minimum amount teams must spend next season is $54.2 million.

Hmm. Maybe commissioner Bettman will end up bringing the clippings from the past few days to the negotiating table, tossing them in front of Fehr and his players and saying, see, we can't go on like this.

"Help me save my teams from themselves," the commissioner might say, "so we can all continue to make gobs of money."

Eight years ago, fans accepted that the labor talks were likely headed down a dark tunnel because the league was so determined to alter the labor landscape. No one expected an entire season and the playoffs to be sacrificed, and even now it remains a dark stain on the fabric of the game, a great embarrassment to both sides that they couldn't find some sort of middle ground in the middle of all that cash to save the game they both profess to love and protect.

It happened, though, and the fans came back and so, too, did the game, better than ever.
This time, though, what story will the league and its players tell the fans if they can't get a deal done in the face of all this salary gluttony?

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

Fans, for all their passion and willingness to forgive to pursue the game, can't be counted on to be so forgiving this time. Nor should they be.

Not when they see the results of the opening days of free agency.