If I were to ask you, “What professional sports league can least afford a potentially season-cancelling lockout right now?” the obvious answer is the NHL, right? And yet, we are now several days into such a lockout and the most recent headlines have been depressing enough to cause NHL fans everywhere to tear their hair out and hope Gary Bettman gets waylaid by a Zamboni. The latest news does not inspire any sign of confidence as negotiations have come to a grinding halt, a flurry of NHL stars have announced their intentions to play overseas for the next year and the NHL has recently cancelled all pre-season games. Every indication seems to signify pro hockey will not be played any time soon.
A quick recap of the issues that brought us to our current state: after the lockout that cancelled the entire 2004-2005 season, the resulting Collective Bargaining Agreement seemed to benefit the owners and it was widely perceived that the players made large concessions in the deal, having their share of revenue reduced from 76 to 56 percent as well as accepting the creation of a salary cap, set annually. Now, despite the fact that the owners were exceedingly pleased with the salary cap and that since the 2004 lockout the NHL has expanded its yearly income from $2 billion to $3 billion a year, the NHL and its management are now crying foul, refusing to play under the same CBA they hailed as a victory seven years ago. Their latest offer to the NHL Players Association calls for a reduction of player revenue from 57 percent to around 48 percent, a limit on player contract lengths and a reduction of the salary cap. They argue that while the total revenue of the league has risen, it has only benefited large-market teams, and smaller markets in the South and Midwest have all struggled to make a profit. On the other side, the players, who felt slighted at the terms of the previous CBA, are now being pressured to take further cuts in salary. Rightfully so, the NHL Players Association is refusing to give in to the demands of the owners.
It seems clear to me that the NHLPA is well within their rights to hold out until the owners offer fair terms. Nearly every issue the owners and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman have been griping about has been self-inflicted, yet they refuse to show the moral fiber of an 8-year-old and take responsibility for their actions. In the last decade the NHL has grown from a sport with fringe appeal, fans tucked away in remote corners of the Northeast and Canada, to a league which garners respect and admiration of both casual sports fans and celebrities alike. During last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, NBA and MLB stars were tweeting about the intensity of the games, celebrities were coming out in droves to attend them and millions were riveted by the fantastic storyline of the 8-seed underdog Los Angeles Kings who stormed through the Playoffs to win the Stanley Cup, the finals getting some of the highest television ratings in recent memory. Only a group of incompetent dimwits would cripple the rising popularity of the sport by crying “No fair!” to the rules that they previously set, however, this is exactly what the owners are doing.
Don’t cry to the fans that you are losing money every year when the NHL’s income has risen dramatically since the previous lockout. Don’t complain that the salary cap is too high, causing rising expenses, when the salary cap is set by the amount of income taken in by the NHL in the first place. Don’t lament the fact that contracts have grown absurd in length and size (see Zack Parise, Shea Webber, Christian Erhoff, Ilya Kovalchuk, etc.) when the owners are the ones who have handed the contracts out. This would be akin to me contesting a failing grade on a test which I never bothered to study for.
It seems likely that this will be a messy, potentially long lockout which could threaten a good portion of the season. Many pundits predict a new CBA will be struck around Thanksgiving, allowing season play to resume somewhere in late December. I imagine this will be the case, although I still have my hopes up for a last-second deal before a regular season game is actually missed. My guess is that the new CBA will have a slight reduction of player revenue, something to the tune of 4 or 5 percent, a fixed salary cap for the remainder of the lockout, with the most important improvement being a maximum contract length and salary, similar to the NBA, which will hopefully curb the ridiculous contracts that have become the norm in today’s NHL.
Though in all honesty, I’d just be happy to finally see some NHL hockey again.