"Money, get away, Get a good job with more pay, and you're ok. Money, it's a gas, grab that cash with both hands, and make a stash. New car, caviar, four star daydream, think I'll be me a football team. Money get back, I'm all right Jack, keep your hands off my stack" are the lyrics to Pink Floyd's hit song Money. With over $3 billion in revenues up for grabs its not a big surprise that both the NHL owners and the National Hockey League Player's Association want their piece of the pie. How big that 'slice' will be is what will be up for negotiation. For the league's fans, we all remember what happened the last time a Collective Bargaining agreement was negotiated. The NHL owners stuck to their guns, and the 'lockout' that ensued ultimately cost the 2004-05 season. In this battle the players more or less were compelled to give into all of the demands made by the owners which the players gave back 24% of their salaries, and teams could now take players to arbitration. Needless to say the members of the NHLPA have not forgotten these major concessions and this is why its hard to imagine the two sides reaching an agreement before training camp is set to open the fall. You can read a sort of a summarized version of the current CBA here.
Will we see another NHL lockout?
Before I say anything else I should make you privy to a few things about myself. One, I'm a member of a union who has been apart of some rather rocky collective bargaining negotiations. Now I would ask that you do not assume that I'm going to come out in favor of the NHLPA simply for reasons of solidarity with these fellow members of the union. The NHLPA is a vastly different entity than my local teacher's union; and I can say without any exaggeration that what we tried to negotiate as teachers comes a hell of a lot closer to issues where being able to feed a family is potentially at stake than those of former Minnesota Timberwolves forward Latrell Sprewell when he made this memorable comment in reaction to a 3-year, $21 million contract offer. "They offered me 3 years at $21 million. That’s not going to cut it. And I’m not going to sit here and continue to give my children food while this front office takes money out of my pocket. If (Timberwolves owner Glen) Taylor wants to see my family fed, he better cough up some money. Otherwise, you’re going to see these kids in one of those Sally Struthers commercials soon.” With this perspective, the NHLPA doesn't have a ton of sympathy on its side, especially in a lagging economy but people are not blind to the rather legitimate complaints NHL players have with this proposal. But now that NHL owners have slid their offer across the table to the NHLPA, what sort of leverage (if any) do the owners have? Why are NHL owners asking for just about everything right away? Will any CBA be able to control NHL owners from continuing to make the game cost prohibitive to them and fans as well? And most importantly to those of us (the fans) caught in the middle of this will we have a lockout for next season?
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For all of the fixes the NHL salary cap system was to provide on almighty premise of guaranteeing "cost certainty" for the owners the only thing it seems to have accomplished is that costs are going to continue to rise. The salary cap skyrocketed from a modest $39 million in 2005-06 to now being over $70.2 million for the upcoming 2012-13 season if its not adjusted in negotiations. Not just for NHL owners, but most importantly hockey fans who have seen a steady increase in the price of tickets. Many NHL fans, who offered some support for the owners last time around on the hope that it might yield more affordable prices found out that was a farce. Most of the league's teams gave fans a discount (the Wild were one of five teams that did not offer a discount) but then after that began to raise their prices again. I do not think NHL owners can expect as much support from the fans (other than their want to see NHL hockey) who now simply see it as a broken system by the conduct of the owners themselves.
Will we see signs like this again in 2012-13?
The Executive Director of the NHLPA, Donald Fehr, famous for his hard line stance in negotiations when he held the same post for the Major League Baseball Player's Association probably shook his head at the NHL's intial CBA proposal which was leaked Friday. I don't envy being NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman who has to managed to keep a straight face after their proposal. So far both sides have avoided too much grandstanding. Bettman was quoted as saying, "Obviously we've made some proposals we believe need some serious consideration to move forward" while Fehr was rather measured in his response saying, "I think that the overall reaction to the kind of reductions that are contemplated ought to be obvious." The league's proposal asked for the following:
~ A 19% reduction in the players' collection of league-related revenues dropping their share from the current 57% down to 46%.
~ A demand to limit contract lengths to a maximum of 5 years.
~ A demand to require players to accrue 10 professional seasons before they can become an unrestricted free agent.
~ A complete elimination of signing bonuses.
~ Contract pay is the same for each year of the contract; so in other words no more front loading of deals.
~ Entry level contracts would be extended from their current length of 3 years to 5 years in duration.
Needless to say, the league's owners are asking for a lot. And the reaction was predictable, all you needed was a Twitter account to watch it all play out; let me pass on a few 'highlights'. NHL Player agent Allan Walsh who represents former Wild forward Martin Havlat among others who is never shy about posting his opinions on just about anything tossed out this gem, "Wonder how many season tickets NHL teams will sell this week after Fridays declaration of war against players" with the descriptive hashtag of shooting yourself in the foot. Walsh was even more pointed with this tweet, "This turned out be some partnership. Revenues up 50%, Bettman salary doubles, players take 24% rollback, now asked to take another 22%+ cut." Even writers have chimed in, including Minneapolis Star Tribune Wild beat writer Michael Russo who tweeted, "Basically what the NHL told us yesterday is they threw away an entire season to negotiate the world's faultiest CBA" adding this sarcastic tweet a few minutes later, "I can't wait to see what loopholes the league leaves in to cause the next labor dispute in 5-7 years."
I doubt I am alone with those that feel the current CBA became a joke when teams started making contracts with ridiculous lengths in term. I realize the Wild's big mega deal with twin contracts for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will likely be example 1A, 1B for the NHLPA on pointing this issue not with the players but with the owner's willingness to make a mockery of their own agreement. Yet, the Wild are not the only team with contracts like this. Marian Hossa, Roberto Luongo, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Sidney Crosby and Ilya Kovalchuk all have deals in excess of 10 years in length. In a physical sport like the NHL, the potential for injury make these long-term deals a significant risk. No offense to Penguins' General Manager Ray Shero but I am not sure I'd sign Crosby to a 12-year contract extension when he's struggled to stay healthy through the majority of the last two seasons. Even if he is the best player in the league when he's healthy, but that's the risk the Penguins are allowed to take under the current rules and thus it makes sense they'd want rules to prevent that from happening. As was the case with the last CBA and their implementation of the salary cap, the goal is to prevent the owners from creating their own mess. The Philadelphia Flyers certainly did not make the negotiation stance for the NHL any better by making a 14-year, $116 million offer sheet for Nashville Predators' restricted free agent Shea Weber. You can read ESPN's take on how this offer sheet makes the league the biggest 'losers' in this still developing deal (since Nashville could match the offer and thus retain Weber) here.
Don't get me wrong. I am not saying the players should give in to those demands. But I think maintaining the status quo isn't a solution either. I think some of the pieces of the NHL's proposal makes a lot of sense; especially on the issue of contract lengths and the front loading of deals. However as a union member who has gone through a lot of turmoil the last few years, I would be outraged at rolling back my salary by 19%, especially after having rolling it back 24% six years prior to that. In my short career I've 'frozen' my pay 3 times to help out my employer. Then more recently when they placed more burden on me; its impossible not to feel insulted. So I think I know a little bit how the players feel with this proposal. However, myself and most of you who are reading this will never come close to making even the league minimum of over a half million dollars so obviously there is a big difference in terms of standard of living.
So with this understanding that NHL ownership is asking a lot from the players, what sort of concessions could they make that might get things rolling towards an agreement?
1. The NHL can agree to let the players play in Sochi in 2014 ~ If the NHL were to concede this I am not going to make the wild connection that the player will suddenly be willing to give up 19% of their salary. A logical concession would be for the players to give in to NHL re-alignment. NHL owners want reduced travel, as well as boosting regional rivalries this would be a far easier card for the league to play. The players; regardless of where they are from want to play in this tournament. I realize the risks of allowing NHL players to play in this glorified exhibition tournament. Players could get hurt and owners make multi-million dollar investments in their health as they want them to perform and help their respective franchises be profitable not to mention win games. However, by the players giving in to re-alignment they help save on travel costs so it could be a wash. While its debatable how much promotion the NHL gets from the Olympics it does help the league stay on good terms with the International Ice Hockey Federation. I think this would be a great starting point that may begin a process that leads towards greater compromise.
2. NHL players will no longer be accountable for escrow ~ In the current CBA, one thing the players really resent is the fact that part of their salary is held while the league makes sure it gets its share of the revenues. If the league makes its appointed percentage the players get that salary back. If not, they only get a part of that witheld salary back. Why? Currently, the players get 57% of the revenues so the financial health of the league is being placed on their shoulders. The NHL is calling for a 19% rollback in the players' salaries and while I doubt they'll give into such a huge reduction I think by offering up the cessation of escrow would be a great way to reach a compromise. Now since the owners want 54% of revenues they should be taking the majority of the risk instead of the players. The NHL owners have to at least be willing to give that up in order to get any sort of concession on a re-allocation of revenues. This OnGoalAnalysis.com blog more or less agrees with me. The term 50/50 split of the league revenues is what is being bantered about and perhaps this is a way to get closer to that figure.
3. Non-Entry level players can re-negotiate their contracts once during the length of their contract ~ This might seem as though I'm letting the genie out of the bottle with this concession by the NHL, but if it coincides with the players being only allowed a maximum of a 5-year deal it might restore a little bit of the sanity to the system. Since this concession would not involve players on their Entry level contract the NHL would avoid the NFL's pitfall of having to hand out a huge contracts to an unproven players.
Are my ideas perfect? Probably not, but I think they're relatively fair to both sides. What do you think? What concessions do you think need to be made by the league or the players to get a deal done so we don't have another lockout or a delay to the start of the 2012-13 season?