The current NBA lockout has stoked concerns among some hockey fans, pundits and bloggers a similar fate is in store once again for the NHL. Here’s why I don’t believe it will happen.
I realize I’m making a bold statement with the headline, considering the next round of collective bargaining between the NHL and the NHLPA won’t commence until early in the New Year, likely after the All-Star game.
Such a statement leaves me open to criticism and ridicule, especially if I’m proven wrong by next fall.
It’s also understandable why those who follow professional hockey, either as a fan, blogger or pundit, are watching the current labor strife in the NBA and experiencing flashbacks to the NHL’s nuclear winter of 2004-05.
While that was seven long years ago, the memories of the experience are still fresh.
I understand much can happen between now and September 15, 2012, when the current collective bargaining agreement expires, and could result in yet another long, painful work stoppage for our favorite pro sport.
But I sincerely believe things are very different this time around.
For one, there’s no hint of rancour between the NHL and NHLPA heading into the final season of this CBA.
We had plenty of advance warning of labor discontent leading up to the 1992 NHL players’ strike, and the two lockouts which followed.
The ink had been dry on the 1995 CBA only three years when the sabre rattling on both sides started, with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and then-NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow hurling barbs and warnings at each other, increasing in tempo and volume as the September 15, 2004 expiration date approached.
This time around, however, all’s quiet on the labor front.
I know, some will say, “too quiet”, but we’ve heard no calls from Bettman, his trusty lieutenant Bill Daly, or the most vocal team owners for further “cost certainty”, threatening dire scenarios for the league’s future.
The NHLPA, led by new director and former MLB players union head Donald Fehr, have also been largely silent. Fehr, only on the job for barely a year, has spent the time visiting teams and talking to the players, but neither he, his aides, or player reps have hurled any invective toward Bettman and the owners.
Does this mean both sides are keeping their powder dry for the inevitable clash in 2012? Perhaps, but I believe there’s a simpler explanation, which is my next point: neither side has the stomach for another long labor war.
That’s certainly true of the players, who following the last lockout were forced to accept a three-tier salary cap system, a 24 percent salary rollback and escrow.
They would ultimately benefit as the cap was tied to rising revenue, increasing from $39.5 million in 2005-06 to $64.3 million by 2011-12, raising the average and median salaries to levels higher than enjoyed under the final year of the previous CBA.
The players won’t just roll over and be lapdogs for the owners. The hiring of Fehr disproves that notion, but to me it indicates they also want the best deal they can get without having to face another labor war.
Comments by several notable NHL players in recent weeks, reacting to the NBA lockout and the inevitable comparison to the last NHL lockout, certainly suggests this.
Here’s New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur and Devils captain Zach Parise in a recent interview with the Star-Ledger:
In the months leading up to the last work stoppage, players were told by the union to save their money and prepare for the cancellation of the season. That proved prophetic.
“That hasn’t happened this time,” Brodeur said. “It definitely was mentioned, but we feel there is a lot of room for both sides to talk about stuff. I’m not 100 percent sure of all the issues. But, by the look of it compared to the last time, it’s night and day. That’s a really good sign, unless there is a really big surprise.”
“I’m not 100 percent sure it will get done in September,” Brodeur said of a new CBA. “It could be extended and we could play for a time while we’re talking about it. It seems to be a lot healthier relationship between the players and the owners from last time when we were under Bob Goodenow. But you never know.”
Zach Parise said of possible labor stoppage: “I’m not worried about it. I sure hope everyone is smart enough to know it’s not a good idea. But I’m not at the point of worrying about it. It’s a long ways away. Hopefully we can take advantage of the time we have to figure something out.”
Florida Panthers Ed Jovanovski, in a recent interview with Foxsports Florida:
“Top-end players have already done pretty well financially,” Jovanovski said. “Those guys might have a different opinion than guys that are on the lower end of the pay scale. Those guys want to play . . . You ask a guy like maybe (Heat star) Dwyane Wade. He’s probably like, ‘Let’s finally get the best deal for everyone.’ If you ask maybe a guy that’s kind on the lower end then, ‘This money I’m never going to get back.’ “
Former NHL star turned Lightning executive Dave Andreychuk:
“As the pressure built — after a month, two months, three months — it started to sink in,” recalls Andreychuk, now a team executive with the Lightning. “Guys were saying to themselves, ‘I’m 25 years old and hockey is how I make my living. We need to get a deal done.’ ”
While they obviously don’t speak for their peers, their comments nevertheless provide what could be their overall mindset and message for Fehr: Get the best deal you can so we don’t miss any playing time.
That’s likely prevailing thought at NHL headquarters and among the 30 team owners
Here’s Commissioner Bettman, in a recent interview :
“We don’t even talk about it right now. We have a new executive director of the union (Donald Fehr), who is going through is learning curve, and he has told us that he won’t even be ready to talk to us until after the All-Star Game. We have labor peace, this is our seventh season of labor peace, we’re having a great season, so we’re not talking about it, we’re not focused on it, we’ll deal with it down the road.”
This was the man calling for “cost certainty” for six years prior to the last lockout, seemingly unconcerned over the next round of CBA talks with one of the most skilled and respected union negotiators in North American sports.
Is he over-confident? Smugly assured he’ll beat down the PA again? Or one who believes a new deal can be reached without resorting to another lockout, or forcing the players to strike? I’m assuming the latter.
Here’s Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman, in a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune:
(Bowman)believes with a salary cap already in place, the process in ’12 should be smoother.
“Bettman and his group are preparing very well for it and they are a very smart group of guys,” Bowman said. “I don’t think there will be an overhaul of the (NHL) system — there will just be some changes here and there.”
And therein lies the next reason.
The previous labor war, from the owners point of view, had two simple premises. One, humbling the PA (especially its arrogant then-director Goodenow), and two, impose a “cost certainty” system. On both fronts, they succeeded.
Fehr, of course, is a far different beastie than Goodenow, but hardly the galvanizing figure for the owners as his predecessor was. More on that later.
The previous lockout was as much about changing how the owners conducted business with their players as about changing an entire system. With “cost certainty” now in place, everyone, even Fehr and the players, understand calling for its elimination is a non-starter. The owners simply won’t give up the current system.
That’s why Bettman and company aren’t calling for major changes, haven’t trotted out questionable studies citing losses of millions, tried to tar the players as the villains with ridiculous falsehoods linking their salaries to ticket prices, or threatened to once again lock out the players.
The big market clubs in the United States and all the Canadian teams are happy with the current system. Owners of clubs in struggling markets would undoubtedly like to see the cap floor lowered, as well as the players percentage of revenue, currently at 57 percent.
Achieving those wishes, if negotiated sensibly, shouldn’t be anywhere near as contentious as the cost certainty they wanted to foist upon the PA seven years ago.
As for the new director of the NHLPA, some pundits and bloggers have tried to play up the “Fehr factor”, highlighting his responsibility for the MLB lockout of 1994, which killed the remainder of the season and cancelled the World Series.
What his detractors among the hockey punditry and blogsphere conveniently overlook is that, in the years since, MLB never suffered another work stoppage with Fehr and his successor running the players union.
Fehr’s not coming into this gig as a white knight determined to slay the NHL dragon. The NHLPA wants the best deal it can get without losing part or all of a season, so who better than Fehr, a proven labor negotiator, who helped bring labor peace to Major League Baseball, to get that deal for them.
That leads to my final reason, this time, we’ll see real negotiation between the two sides achieving a new CBA without the need for a work stoppage.
The assumption from the owners side is there doesn’t need to be much change from the current system. It’s rumored the league could seek to lower the cap floor, reduce the players percentage of revenue from 57 percent to between 47-50 percent, and attempt to roll back salaries again.
It would seem those issues would be non-starters for the players, but if the owners are insistent on these points, citing the real struggles of money-losing franchises in New Jersey, on Long Island, in Columbus, and in the Sun Belt, the PA could agree to accept a 50-50 revenue split, a lowered cap floor, five-year term limits for contracts, and a ten percent rollback, provided the league agreed to either eliminate or reduce escrow payment, guarantee contracts, keep the cap tied to revenue, maintain or lower the eligibility age for unrestricted free agency, and retain the right for “no-trade” or “no-movement” clauses in contracts for those eligible for unrestricted free agency.
There’s also the possibility the owners may not be as united as they were in 2004-05. It’s rumored some big market owners aren’t thrilled over having to help their struggling brethren, while the latter could push for increased revenue sharing in addition to lowering the players share of revenue, reducing the cap floor, and rolling back salaries.
It could create a wedge issue Fehr could exploit to his benefit at the bargaining table.
Of course, I’m merely speculating, as we won’t know for certain what the issues will be until negotiations begin early next year, but I don’t foresee them being show-stoppers on the road to a new deal, and certainly not worth another protracted labor spat between the two sides.
The labor atmosphere is no longer poisonous between the NHL and NHLPA as it was from 1990 to 2005. The players don’t relish another lengthy labor war, a view likely shared by a significant number of team owners, and the hierarchy of the NHL.A desire for compromise appears shared by both sides.
Having seen the NHL product regain fans following a season-killing lockout, and actually grow to where they’re enjoying record-setting attendance figures and the highest TV ratings in nearly twenty years, neither side wants to throw any of this into jeopardy.
Time will surely tell if I’m wrong in my assessments, but I believe the NHL and NHLPA will get a new CBA without resorting to another work stoppage.