It’s been a little over a week since official talks between the NHL and NHLPA regarding a new collective bargaining agreement reached an impasse. The Players’ Association has issued no formal counter-proposal to the league’s latest offer, which masked a rollback in player salaries as increased escrow payments and demands for greater control of issues like realignment and reimbursement for capital investments.
The sides have since not spoken officially, though some informal talks have taken place. One wonders whether the two parties are truly interested in reaching an agreement when official negotiations have given way to informal conversations just five days before the current CBA expires and the anticipated lockout will go into effect. Brinkmanship is a natural part of the negotiation process, but it seems more like the two sides are awaiting the inevitable.
Owners will lock out the early parts of the season, and players will hold on for as long as they can before ceding ground once again.
It may not seem like a very fair arrangement, but NHL owners are career businessmen with hundreds of millions of dollars invested in private enterprises (their teams) over which they expect to have a great deal of control. They’re now exercising that control in ways that will save many of them tens of millions of dollars. And as poorly as it plays in the public relations game, the owners are wired to make and save money—fans should no sooner expect them to give away millions to ensure a full season than they should expect water to flow uphill.
Meanwhile, NHL players are fighting to earn the hockey public’s goodwill because it’s the only battle they can win.
As was shown in the 2004-05 lockout, players are essentially at the mercy of the owners in labor discussions. Their unity under the leadership of NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr is a stark contrast from the last work stoppage, and their message of compromise for the sake of the season has been distributed effectively (even if it’s not entirely genuine).
However, good press doesn’t change the economics of the situation. Record revenue, the salary cap and sweetheart televisions deals have made owners’ financial positions less dire this time around, but the circumstances are no less complex. Things like hockey-related revenue, capital investments and a salary cap that draws 57 percent of league revenues are legitimate concerns.
Try explaining any of that to fans who will endure the fall months without hockey.
For most, another battle of millionaire players vs. billionaire owners will generate little interest in the financials of the process. But there’s more to it than a battle of the have’s vs have-even-more’s.
Some players are earning league-minimum salaries and can expect to lose significant pay in a job with an average career of five seasons. Some owners are jettisoning tens of millions of personal fortunes on losing franchises each season in part because of a system that pays large into player salaries and has no meaningful system of revenue sharing.
There are legitimate gripes on opposing sides of the table. Earning the compassion of NHL fans is the only battle the NHLPA can expect to win and one which owners don’t seem interested in undertaking whatsoever.
As in all labor negotiations, the clearest picture is drawn by following the money. And barring a swift about-face on the urgency of negotiations, the money points to a season that will forfeit its first few months—if not more.