The heat is on
With one year to go, players and owners are still far apart on new CBA
Posted: Tuesday September 16, 2003 1:11AM; Updated: Tuesday September 16, 2003 1:27AM
Mark your calendar and start the countdown, because 365 days from now there may be a lot of very sad hockey fans.
The NHL as we know it could change forever just hours after the conclusion of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey in Toronto on Sept. 14. The NHL's collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players' Association expires then, and without a new deal in place, as of 12:01 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2004, the NHL owners will lock players out of training camp.
And if you believe what NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow has been telling his constituents, it may last a while.
"The league simply is out there selling its position," Goodenow said this week, while visiting the Maple Leafs' training camp in Stockholm, Sweden. "Clearly they have some selling to do. We don't. The players are paid what the owners think they're worth."
Goodenow maintains that the NHL has yet to send a legitimate formal proposal his way, while the league insists that it has sent formal proposals to begin discussions. The two sides are getting caught up in semantics and are posturing to attempt to gain an early upper hand whenver negotiations eventually take place.
"I have heard recent comments by the union and players who say they expect a work stoppage of anywhere from a season to a season and a half or even longer," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told the Globe & Mail this week. "Why on earth would anyone say that?
"For me, I prefer to stay in the moment. I'm not looking for a fight. I'm looking for a solution to the economic issues confronting our game. Idle threats will not address these issues. We have a year remaining on the current collective bargaining agreement and, used properly, that is more than ample time in which to negotiate a new agreement. The National Hockey League has been prepared and remains prepared to begin formal collective bargaining negotiations on a moment's notice."
Let's just hope that a moment's notice doesn't come a moment too late and cost us one game of hockey.
Major League Baseball alienated a good portion of its fans with its 1994 strike, and it wasn't until the magical Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run duel in 1998 that many people started coming back to the game. The NHL likely doesn't have a McGwire-Sosa moment ready-made to happen in the next few years, especially when you consider that many star players might opt to retire or play in Europe if a lockout does happen.
Not coincidentally, the World Hockey Association will re-launch in 2004 and could lure away disgruntled NHL free agents who don't want to wait out a lockout. The WHA proved to be a viable alternative to the NHL in the 1970s, and it could do so again if the NHL isn't playing next season.
The NHL's lockout in 1994-95 only lasted 3 1/2 months, but plenty of damage was done, mostly to owners and fans. That lockout cost the NHL 34 regular-season games and lasted 103 days.
Since agreeing to the current CBA to end that lockout, the average salary in the league has jumped from $733,000 to $1.79 million in 2002-03. This 244 percent increase over an eight-year stretch is hard to justify to Joe Six-pack.
Because it has a small-but-dedicated fan base, the NHL isn't in a position where it can afford to lose an entire season (or maybe even two) to labor strife. While Canadians may be more forgiving following the settlement of a new CBA, that may not be the case in the United States.
The NHL is only the fourth most popular professional sport in the U.S., and that may be so only by virtue of some fuzzy math. Realistically, NASCAR, golf and tennis may be ahead of the NHL, as they regularly draw better television ratings. Throw college football and basketball into the mix, and the NHL actually might rank 10th in prominence among U.S. sports fans. Could the 10th most popular sport afford to not play its games for a year or two and expect to win the fans back? I highly doubt it.
It would be easy to blame Bill Guerin, Bobby Holik, Alexei Yashin and Jaromir Jagr for the impending feud based on their status as well-paid busts, but the big-money contracts signed by fading stars and role players such as Pierre Turgeon and Martin Lapointe are just as responsible for the mayhem in the owners' eyes. Once third-line players started getting contract in excess of $5 million per season, it became clear that the system was broken.
I received a telephone call from the NHL Players' Association a few weeks ago taking umbrage with the fact that I had used "work stoppage" rather than "owner's lockout" in my Buffalo Sabres preview. It wouldn't have been surprising to hear this spin doctoring going on if the focus of the article was on labor relations or the current status of negotiations for a new CBA, but it was in regards to what was rather a throwaway line expressing surprise that the team would sign Chris Drury to a four-year deal with all the uncertainty over the future of the game.
While technically they are correct when you go by the dictionary definition that they read to me -- no, I'm not kidding -- the semantics of the phrase "work stoppage" were used to convey what has become its de facto meaning -- a stoppage of work. Perhaps the NHLPA is paranoid that blame was being placed on their side, or perhaps they sensed a chance to go on the offensive and make their perspective known.
And if they really have such a big beef with media members using the term "work stoppage" there is a very simple solution -- take the steps needed to make sure that there isn't one.
The person who called on behalf of the NHLPA was just going his job and protecting his group's interests. To me, that signals great trouble ahead. If they are going to put that much effort into correcting a trivial point like that more than a year in advance of the work stoppage -- or lockout -- actually happening, they are trying to spin the fact that two sides can't agree on a deal and make it the owner's fault.
When -- or if -- a lockout happens, all parties involved will be crucified by angry hockey fans. And no one will come out of it as an immediate winner once a resolution is reached.
A friend of mine who has been involved in hockey at the junior scouting and minor league level has a great position on what he calls the "triangle of stupidity."
The triangle places equal blame on the three parties involved in creating this flawed business model under which the NHL exists: the owners; the agents/players/union and the fans.
The owners accept their share of the blame for spending frivolously and competing with one another for the top free agents, even though they know they are overpaying. The Stars wised up this offseason and let captain Derian Hatcher sign with the rival Red Wings. Dallas also reportedly shopped Guerin (and perhaps even Mike Modano) around, hoping to unload their contracts.
The agents, players and union get blamed for not being able to see the big picture that some franchises are being hurt severely by the uneven playing field in the NHL. Privately, some players will acknowledge that something needs to be done, but as union members, their public stance is one of solidarity and resiliency.
The fans will be the ones who end up getting cheated the most if these two groups of millionaires can't settle their differences in the next 365 days, but don't think the paying customer is blameless. By demanding that their team keeps up a certain level of play and competes for the Stanley Cup on a regular basis, fans have inadvertently created a system by which the owners feel pressure to field a competitive on-ice product. Fans also get blamed for buying into the system and continuing to buy expensive tickets and merchandise, while simultaneously complaining about the prices. If you don't like what you see and if you think the system really is broken, the best thing you can do is to vote with your wallet and stay away from NHL arenas this season.
Nothing will get done until all three groups realize that they must make some sacrifice to end this "triangle of stupidity."
I like to think that cooler heads will prevail and that Bettman and Goodenow (two brilliant, Ivy League-educated attorneys) will be able to hammer out an agreement before next Sept. 15. The league may have to agree to a soft salary cap as opposed to the rigid cap owners are now posturing for, and the NHLPA may have to cave in a bit on its wish to lower the age for unrestricted free agency from 31 to 29. If those two things happen, there is no reason why a deal can't be struck before the 11th hour.
Let's just hope that sanity prevails before it's too late and the game we all love is damaged forever.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.