On the surface, talks between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association on a new collective bargaining agreement have so far been civil. That’s largely because the NHLPA has taken the high road when it comes to responding to the owners’ first proposal. There has been no gag order placed on the players, which makes it that much more remarkable that not a single one has said or tweeted a disparaging word about the NHL’s position.
As you would imagine, behind closed doors, things are not quite as cordial. The players’ side has taken umbrage to the owners’ first offer and while it has not accused the league of bargaining in bad faith, it wants to know the rationale for the owners’ position before making a counter-proposal of its own. The way the players figure, the owners’ position is tantamount to the players demanding 68 percent of all revenues in their first proposal. That’s an 11 percent increase in their take, which is the equivalent to what the owners want to cut.
One thing that has set this bargaining session apart from all the others, say some insiders, is that the players have been more vocal in the meetings than they have ever been before. And young players, such as Jonathan Toews and Jeff Skinner to name two, have been speaking up and making their association’s feelings known. Good for them. One of the things that has plagued the NHLPA almost since its inception, has been player apathy. The fact the young stars of the NHL seem so willing to stand up to their employers bodes well for the NHLPA’s present and future.
But if those reading the tea leaves are to be believed, commissioner Gary Bettman is holding a negotiating card that he has yet to play (and may never have to play) that would be a direct and significant blow to the NHLPA.
The threat of contraction, at least on a temporary basis, is very real and could become very much in play as these negotiations continue. Bettman may not be able to justify the need for a bigger share of revenues, term limits on contracts and increasing the age for unrestricted free agency with the fiscal insanity we’ve seen this summer, but he might be able to do so if he can convince the NHLPA that the Phoenix Coyotes will shut their doors if the league doesn’t get what it wants and the season doesn’t start on time.
Of course, anyone who has even a passing interest in the Phoenix situation knows there likely isn’t an owner-friendly CBA out there that can solve those problems. But if Bettman can use the possibility of padlocking the Coyotes and eliminating the 23 big-league jobs that come with it, you can bet he’ll get the union’s attention.
Whispers of the prospect of folding the Coyotes go back to the Stanley Cup final. But it’s unlikely the league would do that. What could happen is the same thing that occurs in the American League from time to time. When a franchise there is beyond hope, the league usually suspends its operations until such time as a new owner can be found and the franchise is moved.
That is, what I’m being told, a possibility with the Coyotes. Industry insiders have suggested that prospective owner Greg Jamison hasn’t been able to take over the franchise yet because his investors are getting skittish, even with the City of Glendale paying up to $324 million over the next 20 years as part of the lease agreement. One observer close to the situation said Jamison’s investors have actually bailed on the project. Even though the transfer of ownership appears to have cleared the possibility of a petition that would put the NHL’s deal with Jamison on the ballot, the organization is still very much in a state of limbo.
And it could end up affecting a lot more players than just Shane Doan. Should the league use contraction as leverage for a CBA deal, it would potentially affect the employment of 23 members of the NHLPA’s constituency. The roster players on the Coyotes would likely be distributed throughout the league and that would mean one player on more than two-thirds of the existing NHL teams would be losing his job.
And there’s little that gets the attention of any union more than job losses. That’s what puts the NHLPA in such a bind here. Sure, the union could argue that there shouldn’t be teams in places where hockey doesn’t work, but those teams still represent association jobs and members. And when you think of it, that’s what’s really at the heart of this debate between large markets and small markets. If the large market teams disregard the needs of the have-nots, they’ll find they have fewer and fewer teams to oppose. That’s where the NHLPA has a point when it comes to a more equitable revenue sharing format.
But if Bettman can hold the prospect of the Coyotes being mothballed until another owner can be found in Seattle or Kansas City or Quebec City or Toronto, that could change parameters of the debate.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.