As we enter the second week of the NHL lockout, I figure now is a good time to express some of the feelings and emotions that I am sure a lot of us hockey enthusiasts have gone through these past few days.
Let me start by saying how disappointed I am in both the NHL and NHLPA. This lockout, unlike any of the others in recent memory, seems to be the most pointless and harmful one of them all. In this particular case, I can't even pick one side over the other. Back in 2004-2005, I fully supported the NHL and ownership as the game needed to undergo significant changes if smaller market teams were going to compete with the big boys. The NHL also needed a salary cap to increase parity in the league. Since the lockout of ‘04-05, no team has been crowned Stanley Cup Champs two years in a row. Every year we are looking at tight playoff races coming down the stretch, and I think everyone, including teams that were dynasties in the 90's, can agree that hockey has become more exciting these past few years.
The success and growth of the game is evident if you look at the league revenues, TV broadcasts, and attendance numbers. The game has expanded. Times have never been better.
This leads to the question: why are the players and owners willing to throw it all away?
I can't answer it. From where I sit, both sides are acting like spoiled children crying out to their mommies (being the fans, the ones who pay for everything) for a feeding. Nothing has been more insulting over the past few days than watching players and the NHL pandering to fans with slogans along the lines of "We stand united to do what is best for the game and our fans." Sorry, both sides can't be knights in shining armor, because it's their uncompromising ways that have lead to a work stoppage.
In order to better understand what the differences are between the league and the players, I am going to briefly explain the differences between their plans and what it would mean for the NHL. I warn you, this is a very simplified version for everyone to understand, so if you want a more in-depth review try one of Dirk's articles on the legal aspects of the negotiations.
The NHL wants greater control over the players. They want longer ELCs (Entry Level Contracts) so that young players are less likely to leave the franchise that drafted them. They want to rollback the salary cap in order to curb player salaries, which could potentially force players to take a percentage cut to their salaries. In case you missed it, recently Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin warned the league he may stay in the KHL if the NHL cuts salaries, because he feels like he signed a contract and the NHL should honor it. Another thing that the league wants is for the owners to have a much larger piece of the revenue sharing, expanding it from its current 43 percent to just over 52 percent. This is actually the part I agree with. Owners are responsible for pretty much all the costs of running a team, and most markets typically don't have a large amount of profit. Think about how many people owners employ: Players, coaches, trainers, maintenance crews, concession workers, front office personal, media relations, and the list goes on.
The NHL's plan also calls for a gradual of reduction of revenue percentages being paid to players. I actually really like this idea, although the NHL's proposed numbers are very off. I think a plan that rolls players' shares back makes sense. Give the players 53% this year, 50% the next year, and 47% the third and final year. I think this would make both parties happy if the players got increased revenue sharing between teams. You can't drop the player shares from 57% to a paltry 43% in one year.
In truth, this lockout hurts the members of each organization more than it does the players. Already there have been reports of league wide layoffs and firings. The NHL on-ice officials have actually shown quality character in their unanimous decision to not go over-seas and referee games. They are going to wait until the lockout is over before going back to work. I have to give out a stick tap to these guys for choosing that difficult path.
Speaking of the referees, I hope NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is taking notes on the current embarrassment that is the NFL. If you don't think other referee unions are salivating over the possibility over a lockout of their own, think again. Just thinking about the replacement referee quality and applying it to the NHL makes my brain hurt, as we already have inconsistencies in officiating that draw a lot of attention away from the game. Bettman better be taking notes and not be afraid to start appeasing the union because the NHL can't suffer the same humiliation.
A brief word on Bettman: all of the ire thrown at him over the past few weeks is overblown and borderline insane. Bettman, like every other commissioner, follows the orders of the board of governors. If the board of governors want a lockout (which they voted unanimously for) then there is going to be a lockout regardless of what Bettman wants. The bash Bettman bandwagon has been overcrowded for too long as he gets wrongly blamed for all the league's problems.
The NHLPA and the players have put forth a plan of their own, which, like the owners, is pretty one-sided. In general, the players want to keep salaries where they are and to implement a more expansive, NFL style revenue sharing program. This would allow smaller markets to receive more money and enable them to spend like the larger markets. Obviously a raised salary cap and more teams spending to the cap would see a drastic rise in average player salary. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it has the potential to be unsustainable, as some smaller market teams, regardless of league revenue sharing, will be hard pressed to spend like the big boys. This could lead to dynasties, such as the New England Patriots or even the Pittsburgh Steelers. It has been rumored that the players offered to keep the current CBA for one more year and try to renegotiate next year (something I applaud) but they had to understand that that particular solution would never be acceptable in the NHL's eyes as the players currently get 57% of the total league revenue. The players counted the NHL's proposal with a 46% offer right before the CBA expired. I think this is very fair, but they don't really address the real threat to the league's survivability: inflated player salary. Of course, it doesn't help when you have teams like Minnesota paying through the nose for two players in one day... and then complaining about having to do so the next.
As a fan, I really haven't appreciated how the players have tried to gain fan support and put us in the middle of CBA negotiations. All you have to do is follow Twitter and YouTube to know how the players feel. This is not an effective way of trying to negotiate a settlement and I truly believe this will eventually backfire on the players as the lockout drags on.
Please remember that these are basic and even simplistic overviews of the NHL lockout. Personally, I am disappointed as a fan and even more disappointed as a writer as the only sports joy I get these days is counting down the hours to NCAA hockey when I should be looking forward to covering NHL training camps. I implore the NHL and the NHLPA to come to a speedy compromise that is fair for both sides and best for the league as a whole. This lockout is far more volatile than previous ones, as fan and media anger have never been higher. I fear that the two sides are so far apart that yearlong lockout isn't just likely, but probable as negotiations grind to a halt.