I remember the day the 2004 NHL lockout was announced like it was yester-day. My father and I were just pulling into our driveway after an early evening hockey practice when the news was announced over the radio. As an 11-year-old who had nothing more exciting or worthwhile in his life than watching hockey every night of the week, I was heartbroken. Tears welled up, the few profanities I actually knew were uttered and my fall and winter were effectively ruined.
Eight years later, here we are again. While I’m not quite as crushed this time around, I am just as frustrated with the league and its inability to reach a new collective bargaining agreement.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement is a contract negotiated between the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) and the NHL itself. After the 2004-05 lockout, the CBA that was agreed upon only covered eight seasons. Surprise, surprise, we have reached the eighth season and a new CBA is needed, but no agreement has been made. That, dear readers, is what the lockout is – an inability between players and management to agree on the contract.
As is the case with any labor dispute, the main issue this time around is money. Par-ticularly, hockey related revenue (HRR) is a matter of great importance for the own-ers and for the NHL, who want to reduce the players’ guaranteed share from 57 per-cent to 46 percent – a 19 percent revenue distribution cut.
The rest of the NHL’s original proposal presented on July 13 was just as unappeal-ing to players. Setting a maximum term of five years on all players contracts would mean that players can’t have as much guar-anteed salary, and that owners wouldn’t have to pay quite as much to their players.
Eliminating signing bonuses and setting a uniform salary for each year of a contract would entail the same thing.
Extending entry-level contracts for play-ers entering the league from three years to five years would mean that for the first five seasons of a player’s career, he would be under the same entry level contract he was in as a rookie. Think about that. Three years is a long time as it is, but five? From 2007-2009, the NHL’s leading scorers were all in their first three years in the league. In 2007, Sidney Crosby was in his second season and racked up 120 points while be-ing paid just $850,000 a year. In 2008, Alex Ovechkin totaled 112 points and scored 65 goals in his third season of his career while being paid $980,000. In 2009, Evgeni Mal-kin also received $980,000 for scoring 113 points in his third season. For some com-parison, Crosby, Malkin and Ovechkin now all make $9 million a year.
The final insult tabled by the NHL was a proposal to extend qualification for un-restricted free agency from seven years in the league to 10 years. So instead of having to wait seven years to enter the gold mine known as unrestricted free agency, play-ers would have to be in their 10th year in the league. The average NHLer has a ca-reer span of between five and six seasons. Something does not add up.
The nuts and bolts of the CBA negotia-tions are only going to be fully understood by the two parties until an agreement is announced and spelled out to the public. What is more important to me is the dis-regard that the league has for its fans. On Sunday morning, just hours after the dead-line to reach a new CBA had passed, the NHL released this statement on the lockout that only irritated fans and players further:
Despite the expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the National Hockey League has been, and remains, committed to negotiating around the clock to reach a new CBA that is fair to the Players and to the 30 NHL teams.
Thanks to the conditions fostered by seven seasons under the previous CBA, competi-tive balance has created arguably the most meaningful regular season in pro sports; a different team has won the Stanley Cup every year; fans and sponsors have agreed the game is at its best, and the League has generated remarkable growth and momentum. While our last CBA negotiation resulted in a seismic change in the League’s economic system, and produced corresponding on-ice benefits, our current negotiation is focused on a fairer and more sustainable division of revenues with the Players – as well as other necessary adjustments consistent with the objectives of the economic system we developed jointly with the NHL Players’ Association seven years ago. Those adjustments are attainable through sensible, focused negotiation – not through rhetoric.
This is a time of year for all attention to be focused on the ice, not on a meeting room. The League, the Clubs and the Players all have a stake in resolving our bargaining issues ap-propriately and getting the puck dropped as soon as possible. We owe it to each other, to the game and, most of all, to the fans.
The statement says successful changes and agreeable solutions “are attainable through sensible, focused negation – not through rhetoric,” yet the whole process that the two sides are slogging through now can only be described as rhetoric. Since 1992, there have been three lockouts and a strike in the NHL, more than any of the other main four sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA.) That rhetoric, that inability to effec-tively govern, is why the league has had so much strife recently.
What is most telling about the incompe-tency of this whole process in my opinion is the fact that last year the league topped $3 billion in revenue. Even with fans streaming through the turnstiles and television ratings skyrocketing all year, when it came down to it, commissioner Gary Bettman and the rest of the NHL just couldn’t do their job.
The sport of hockey is as entertaining as ever right now. There is an unbelievable in-flux of young talent across the league, there are new NHL strongholds in Winnipeg, Nashville and Los Angeles and a different team has won the Stanley Cup each of the past seven seasons.
The players are doing their part in grow-ing the game. It’s time for management to do the same.
Contact Ben Glassman at [email protected]