About two weeks ago one of the highlights of my summer arrived in the mail. It was my newest edition of the Hockey News' Yearbook. Yes, I realize I'm 34 years old and it sounds just a tad bit immature and a bit antiquated to be excited by the arrival of something in the mail in this day in age but I really do look forward to it each and every summer. While a lot of the information contained in the yearbook is usually not something I didn't already know, it still serves as a great primer for the upcoming season and is a sign that training camps as well as Fantasy Hockey lists will soon be around the corner. I am not a huge fan of the generic articles in the Yearbook, but the team reports are insightful because they're usually written by the beat writers of the respective NHL clubs so you get a good local perspective about what the expectations of the fanbase are or what issues they feel could keep a team out of the playoffs. Will we even have a 2012-13 season? With no pun intended to the league for what its wish to re-adjust league revenues but I think the chances are about 50/50 of having a locked out season and about 40/60 of some sort of reduced season along the lines experienced by the NBA this year. Both sides procrastinated quite a bit before finally sitting down and actually having meaningful conversation with the other side. It doesn't seem like there is as much nastiness as their was in 2004-05, but both sides do agree that they are far apart on the fundamentals of an agreement. In other words, fans hoping for a 2012-13 season have good reason to be worried. The picture of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman checking his watch is appropriate, time is steadily running out for an agreement to be reached. The opening of training camp is less than a month away.
Yet who should we (hockey fans) root for in all of this? While we're not going to be in the negotiating room cheering or boo'ing various moves made, is there one group or certain parts of the negotiation that we (fans) should be in favor of? A few weeks ago, I participated in a discussion on a message board where people (hockey fans like myself) made proposals they felt could perhaps the two sides could agree to. It was quite amazing all of the ideas that were brought up and most made the concessions with the mindset both parties had to compromise. Here are just a few of the ideas.
1. Allow re-alignment and keep NHL'ers in the Olympics, an easy compromise to start a positive dialogue.
2. Eliminate Escrow but players shift revenues to 52% (players) 48% (owners)
3. 6-year limit on contracts for players under the age of 30. 3-year limit on contracts for players over 30.
4. Buyouts don't count against the salary cap on players 35 years old or older
5. Pay must be the same for the duration of the contract. No more front loading of contracts, and no more signing bonuses.
6. The competition committee and R & D camp should be re-instated with a balance of ownership / GM's and the players.
7. NHL rules czar should be replaced by 3-person panel of one NHL appointee, one NHLPA appointee and one random NHL fan (I know it would lead to controversy, but when is it ever without controversy?)
Or another favorite...
1). Get rid of salary "escrow".
2). All current contracts honored as written.
3). Salary cap frozen at current number until revenues reach 50/50, at which point it rises, staying in line at 50/50
4). New contracts with max length of 10 years. Cap hits are now "actual" instead of AAV. No more hoping for the "cap faerie" to save you in the out years. Old AAV contracts grandfathered at current cap hits.
5). Players become eligible for UFA on July 1st following their 27th birthday (i.e. kill "early exception")
6). "Offer sheets" still exist, but have max length of years is until player's UFA eligibility.
7). Five year term, auto-renewing each year thereafter unless one side opts out.
8). Owners agree to let players play in every Olympics for as long as the agreement is in force.
9). NHLPA agrees to league's previously announce reorganization of divisions/conferences.
So who and what should hockey fans be rooting for as CBA negotiations continue?
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However, its tough to really feel all that sorry for either side. I mean which side do you choose? Billionaires or Millionaires? Are they really feeling the pain of a stagnant economy like most of us fans are? Doubtful. I could sit here and compare how much more players and owners have versus the average fan until the cows come home, but it doesn't really help you decide who to root for in this struggle.
So far the NHLPA has done a much better job at appearing more compromising than the league; which was not the case back in 2004 where the NHL did a better job of convincing most fans that 'cost certainty' would somehow mean lower ticket prices and a more affordable game for all involved. The owners got their wish and somewhere in mess the helping out the fans was either forgotten or ignored altogether. In 2004, Facebook was just another social networking site in the same realm as MySpace and others. There was no Twitter, and the players and their agents (most notably Allan Walsh) have taken advantage of this outlet to make their case in 140 characters at a time. So lets take the issues one by one and make a case for each side and then let you (the reader) decide for yourself.
1. League Revenue Split (currently 57% to the players, 43% to the owners)
In favor of the players: Fans might want the players to keep the lion's share of the pie because after all they're the part of the game we pay good money to watch play. This is our entertainment in action. If the players keep the lion's share of the revenues they will have a financial incentive to make sure the game stays exciting and their participation in the Competition Committee as well as R & D camp that reduced the size of goalie pads, cracked down on obstruction and removed the red line was a sign of their willingness to open up the game. No one goes to a game hoping to see an NHL owner, let alone want to watch them do their job.
In favor of the owners: Fans might want owners to have the majority share of the revenue pie because these are the people that provide us NHL hockey. They may not play on the ice, but without their big $$, we don't have teams or the star players we enjoy rooting for. Fans invest their fan dollars with the owner who then does what they can (with the exceptions of Columbus or the New York Islanders) to build a championship franchise. If owners are able to make more money, there is a possibility, no matter how unlikely that their savings would be at least in part passed onto the fans in terms of more affordable tickets. Besides, fans and their consumption of ticket sales hold a bit of a trump card over the owners they don't have that kind of leverage with the players.
New York Islanders' Rick DiPietro
2. Contract Lengths (more or less unlimited which is what the NHLPA would like to keep)
In favor of the players: Fans like knowing they will have their star players around for a long time. Who wants to buy a jersey with a player's name and number on the back for $160-$250 only to have them traded away? Players want job security just like we all do. So if an owner is willing to offer up a 10-12 year contract why shouldn't they sign it? If we could do the same, wouldn't we? Long term contracts give the fans the star players they want for a long period of time and the job security the players want, its a win-win.
In favor of the owners: Long term contracts make the salary cap a morass of albatross deals that owners have been more or less forced to make. The result is a lack of flexibility and being stuck with few unwieldy contracts that make it difficult for General Managers to make adjustments to the roster. Unless these contract lengths are amended to more sensible lengths its only going to get worse. While some fans might like the thought of having a player like Alexander Ovechkin for 10 years, there is the contrary which turns such deals into a nightmare like the 15-year pact the Islanders signed with oft-injured goaltender Rick DiPietro.
3. Escrow (Owners want to keep it, currently part of a player's salary is kept until owners get their share of season revenues, once they get what they're entitled to the players get their money back)
In favor of the players: No one likes having parts of their paycheck held, taxed, or deducted. The players are on the ice taking the majority of the risks to entertain the fans. Why should they have to make sure the owners get their share when they are who the fans are really paying to see? Escrow robs players of potential interest and spending power which they could use to invest and perhaps solidify their situation for their days after their career comes to an end. If the employees hate it, and the league is making so much more money (currently $3.3 billion today compared to around $2 billion just after the lockout) then why not change it? Happier players could mean even better hockey and fans will certainly appreciate that. If business is really booming as much as the league has stated it has over the last few months then why do they insist on an escrow system at all?
In favor of the owners: While players are the reason fans show up to the games, there wouldn't be any games without the owners. Escrow ensures the owners get their take from the league's total revenues and (in theory) make it a viable business. The owners are the ones taking the majority (if not all) of the financial risk to support a team, and its only right that they get their share first and if the proper projections are met then the players get their full share of the pie. The players have collected back their full share they had withheld via escrow in all but one season over the course of the current CBA. They have gotten their share of the money; after all they're collecting 57% of the revenues right now so why should the players be complaining anyways. Fans should want viable NHL ownership and collecting escrow helps provide that.
4. Revenue Sharing
In favor of the players: The NHLPA's counter proposal included a considerable program that would implement revenue sharing towards franchises which are currently struggling financially. The NHLPA recognizes the league is only as strong as its weakest market, and it hopes by helping these struggling franchises it can make these clubs more competitive and thus make the league stronger as a whole. Revenue sharing has helped major league baseball keep struggling markets afloat, so why not take advantage of the big money the Canadian teams are generating? If you're the fan of a team that is struggling financially like Columbus, Florida, New York Islanders, Phoenix, etc you'd be rooting for the players to achieve their goal.
In favor of the owners: It is not the responsibility of the owners to make sure all of the franchises are successful, after all they often have enough to deal with in their own team. If NHL franchises are always teetering on financial failure, then why not relocate them where they can be successful. Winnipeg's tremendous success is a great example of how relocation can turn around the financial fortunes of a franchise and the league would be wise to pursue that before it seriously considers revenue sharing. Columbus is a disaster not because of an owner in over their head but rather inept management. So why should the league be on the hook to enable more inept decision making by dysfunctional franchises?
Those are just a few parts of the proposals that are going around, but perhaps its enough for you to root for one side or the other. I think most fans would be happy as long as the season starts on time, but I think they are also realistic enough to understand that we have less at stake than the two parties in question. Either way, please share your thoughts in the comments section below!