Lockout looming: Who’s Going to Blink First?

28/08/2012 § Leave a comment

Well, here we are 18 days from September 15th, a day that might change hockey for the foreseeable future. Surely, another lock out would be devastating to the growth of the game – both the NHL and the PA know this, so the question becomes who will win this classic game of “chicken”?

Briefly let’s look at some of the key facts. The average player’s salary has increased from approx $1.4 million to $2.4 million in 6 years, a 71.5% increase.

No wonder the players want to operate under the same system but even they know that dream is dead. Nonetheless, the PA makes a couple of strong points.

1) The system the NHL put into place after the lockout isn’t working, so why should the players accept a similar deal when the old system wasn’t sustainable.

2) The NHL and the owners want shorter contracts, but they’re the ones signing players to ridiculous long-term deals.

Problem 1, competition is paramount

The NHLPA’s original offer was the equivalent to reinventing the wheel. Maybe that’s what you get when a guy of Donald Fehr’s baseball CBA pedigree. Sure MLB is the only sport without a major labour dispute in recent years but I’d much rather watch a league with parity instead of seeing the Yankees dominate due to their $200+ million payroll each season. Yes, that’s over simplified but you get the point. The NHL’s set up allows teams like LA (an 8-seed) to win the Stanley Cup.

Either way the NHL isn’t going to seriously consider a framework that may tarnish the internal competitiveness of the league.

FACT: In 2004-2005 Gary Bettman told every NHL team to take out a line of credit from the bank just in case… I’m sure he’s done it again.

Problem number 2, GMs don’t equal owners

The owners (for the most part) aren’t involved that deeply with contract negotiations. That’s up to the GM. As a GM you are going to do everything in your power to WIN. Long-term, front-loaded contracts are a result of loopholes exploited by men doing their job – not the owners. And as an owner if your GM told you it was in the best interest of your hockey club, you would sign off on it. I’m tired of hearing and reading that the owners are to blame. Unless you are Brian Burke, who conducts his business “in the spirit of the CBA” – at the end of the day you will do anything to WIN. Brian Burke doesn’t talk to Rogers, Bell, and Tannenbaum before signing Phil Kessel – at least I hope he doesn’t. GMs exploit the rules, owners go along with it and now they want it fixed – plain and simple.

The next CBA will have new loopholes, GMs will once again exploit them and owners will scream foul when the new CBA expires. It’s the circle of life in the CBA world.

The NHLPA seems to have the public on their side – but they may have more to lose. The NBA did just fine getting fans back and the NHL – well I think they’re in this for the long haul. With 20 days left, the PA has to be getting a little nervous.Donald Fehr has convinced the players they shouldn’t be giving up that much, but at the end of the day I think they’ll be the first to blink. That’s not to say that pension benefits, player treatment etc. won’t get better, it simply means that their demands will lessen as the NHL has made it clear before…”if we don’t get something close to what we want – we’re okay with a strike – it’s for the long-term benefit of the game.”

Right or wrong, they’re unlikely to cave. Right now the players are united, but if a lockout ensues it won’t last long. The last lockout is not a distant memory for the players. And you can be sure that if a new lockout begins the NHL won’t weaken its stance. NHL owners trust Gary Bettman, in fact they’ve coined the term “Bettman smart” demonstrating their respect for the commissioner. Donald Fehr has done well commanding his troops, he has done enough to save face even if the players have to take a few small hits.

Let’s be honest, short-term contracts, a hard salary cap, keeping player salaries reasonably steady, and having 30 competitive NHL teams is something we’d all love to keep seeing. Fehr is new on the job, the players took a massive hit the last time around, he has to negotiate hard but at the end of the day he must get a deal done by September 15th because surely he knows the NHL won’t weaken its stance.

I can only hope the posturing will come to an end this week and the negotiations will finally begin. The NHL took a hard line with their first offer, the PA will be able to shift some of the key terms in that offer in their favor, but at the end of the day the players have too much to lose. Gary’s in this for the long haul. Otherwise Phoenix would be in Quebec City right now.

I may not be a Gary Bettman fan, and I may think that the players aren’t to blame for the current state of the game, but at the end of the day the players will stomach a small hit, Donald Fehr will save face, and the NHL season WILL START ON TIME. Otherwise, God help us all come winter.

-Virani

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