NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will lead the owners through another CBA negotiation. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
Man, a guy goes out of town for the weekend to attend a high school reunion and war breaks out between the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association.
When news of the owners’ initial proposal to the players broke, that was the first reaction of many observers. By tabling demands that would reduce the players’ take to 46 percent of revenues, place term limits on contracts, abolish signing bonuses, extend entry level contracts from three to five years and unrestricted free agency from seven years experience to 10, the owners, according to a good number of people, were doing nothing short of declaring war on the players.
First of all, perhaps we can tone down the rhetoric here. There are real people fighting in very real conflicts around the world and losing their lives. That is war. Thirty billionaires squabbling with 700 millionaires is not war.
And while we’re at it, perhaps we can all take a breath here and realize this is a negotiation. This is the start point, not the final result. Almost everyone has known for months now the owners want the revenue split to be 50-50, so by making their first offer 46 percent, they give themselves some wiggle room to move up on their position and still get what they want. That’s not even Collective Bargaining Negotiating 101.
The collective bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15. That means a couple of things. The first is the owners and the players now have the right to try to alter the agreement in any way they see fit. The owners have the right to ask for all the clawbacks they think they can get, even if they’re taking in record revenues. And the players are free to refuse to comply. If that results in the CBA running out, the owners will then have the legal right to lock the players out, just as the players will have the legal right to withhold their services. Once again, pretty simple stuff, isn’t it?
But most importantly, is anyone surprised by any of this? Yes, revenues are skyrocketing league-wide, but the NHL has been dropping hints for months now that it was intent on targeting the players’ share of revenues and long-term and front-loaded deals. If the league truly wants a 50-50 split and limits on contract terms, it seems pretty reasonable that this is what the owners would be demanding at this point. We also all knew the league was going to take direct aim at the front-loaded deals that have become the standard for every coveted free agent. So for the league to demand the salaries be the same for each year of the contract is not exactly a shocking development.
Anyone who has been listening to NHL executives talk the past couple of years would have heard them loud and clear when they said one of the current problems with the financial landscape is players are now going directly from entry level deals to the kinds of potentially crippling deals that have become the norm. There was once a time when players would work up to those kinds of deals in their third contracts, not their second. So for the league to demand the entry level status of a player be increased from three to five seasons should not be considered earth-shattering.
Almost all these problems were undoubtedly of the owners’ own making, particularly since they began to circumvent the CBA as soon as the ink was dry. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to make demands that will save them from themselves. The same way Zach Parise and Ryan Suter basically have the right to collude as players and end up with the same team with identical 13-year, $98-million contracts that are front-loaded, the owners have the right to try to make changes so those kinds of contracts no longer exist. If Parise and Suter can get those kinds of salaries and terms of employment, good on them for doing so. They became players of that salary stratosphere the moment there were multiple teams willing to make them those kinds of offers.
They used the leverage they had to orchestrate the best deal for themselves. It’s not at all unlike what the owners are trying to do now. If the Minnesota Wild and the other teams involved in the Parise and Suter sweepstakes had thought their demands to be unreasonable, they had the freedom to not acquiesce to them. The players have the same right when it comes to the NHL’s demands.
Rather than look at the owners’ opening salvo as a war on the players, perhaps it’s time to look at it as a workable framework for a new deal. You’d have to presume the NHL’s offer isn’t going to get worse. The league is not going after guaranteed contracts, which is sacrosanct to the players, nor is it demanding a pre-determined rollback on existing contracts. And if the two sides can negotiate up from there, perhaps there’s a deal somewhere in here that works for everyone involved.