If a lockout happens Sept. 15, it will be the third of Gary Bettman's tenure as league commissioner. (Getty Images)
Until about a year ago, the NHL talked about simply “tweaking” a collective bargaining agreement for which all the heavy lifting had been done in the 2004-05 lockout. In the past couple of months, a lockout has looked inevitable, but few think it will last more than a couple of months. But now, as we approach the Sept. 15 deadline for the two sides to come to an agreement, the forecasts are becoming more dire by the day.
For the first time, people are beginning to ask themselves whether the NHL and its players’ association could actually fritter a season away for the second time in eight years. You bet they can. And unless they begin to find some semblance of common ground, there’s no guarantee they won’t do just that.
And when you think about it, a deal that was supposed to be straightforward this time around is actually far more complex with many more moving parts. Think about it. The last time around the negotiation was relatively simple. Either the players were going to accept a salary cap or they weren’t. As it turned out, they weren’t willing to miss more than a year to prove it and cost certainty became a reality.
Seven years later, though, things aren’t nearly as cut and dried. Part of the reason for that is the owners started circumventing their own rules before the ink was dry on the agreement. For example, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle of the Edmonton Oilers have their own employer to thank for making them far richer on their second contract than they would have been had the teams left the CBA alone.
That’s because when the last CBA was negotiated, there was a provision that stated entry level contracts couldn’t be extended, meaning teams had to wait until they expired before a new contract could be offered. But GMs complained that made their entry-level players subject to offer sheets and the rule was changed. Now, instead of being forced wait until after the lockout to re-sign their two core players under what should be more favorable terms, the Oilers willingly extended Eberle and Hall to the tune of a combined 13 years and $78 million.
It’s pretty difficult to have any understanding or compassion for the owners when they do things like that. Agents reported that they were busier over the summer than they have been in most off-seasons, with teams rushing to get their players signed to contract extensions before the new CBA kicks in.
All of which, of course, is prompting the NHL to take a hard line in negotiations. They had their boots on the players’ necks seven years ago, but didn’t squeeze hard enough and they’re resolved not to make the same mistake again. Rather than be worried about the ramifications of a lockout, the NHL knows its fans would be shocked this time around if there weren’t a protracted dispute. With this being the third one in the NHL and with the NFL and NBA going through their own contract disputes, fans have grown to accept them.
That’s part of the reason why the NHL can make outrageous demands such as the one that would call for a five-year entry-level period, followed by five years of restricted free agency with no arbitration rights. That would effectively mean players would have to play 10 years of pro hockey before having any kind of freedom to offer their services to the highest bidder. With an average career of about five years, the players know there won’t be many of them able to do that.
It’s not a surprise that things have become more complex because, as this corner has opined a number of times, salary caps cause more problems than they solve. And one thing is for sure, they create a lot more rules that need to be adjusted. HRR (hockey related revenue) wasn’t even in the hockey lexicon until 2004. And now that both sides have defined it, the owners want to change the parameters of it to include capital cost deductions. The way the owners see it, if they have to spend $10 million on a new scoreboard, it doesn’t come out of HRR, but the revenue from the advertisements that are sold on it go into the HRR pool split between the owners and the players.
The players argue that while that might be the case, any capital improvements a team makes increases the value of the franchise and can be recouped when the owner cashes out. But does reducing franchises to investments that are bought and flipped every couple of years make sense either? That doesn’t help owners who are in it for the long haul.
For most people who just want to watch hockey, a lot of this represents white noise. But for the people on either side of the negotiating table, they are real problems with few real solutions at the moment. And as we get deeper into negotiations for a CBA that supposedly only needed to be “tweaked”, that sinking feeling will begin to set in a little more.
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.