The NHL is a poor student of history
The annual GM Meetings took place last week for the NHL, and to hear them talk about it, you’d think there was nothing but sunshine and lollipops in the league’s future. But looking forward on the league calendar, there is one looking issue that nobody seems to be talking about: the current CBA is set to expire on September 15, less than six months from now…and nobody’s doing anything about it. Formal negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement have yet to start and there is no schedule for talks to begin. The effects are already being felt as the NHL’s Premiere Games series, in which teams open their season on a European tour, has already been cancelled after five consecutive years. No professional league should know the dangers of a prolonged labor dispute like the NHL and it’s commissioner Gary Bettman, who oversaw the last labor dispute which resulted in the cancellation of the 2004 season. But the company line seems to be “business as usual” and Bettman’s personal “yeah whatevs” attitude toward the expiring of the CBA are painting a painful summer in store for hockey fans. Hooray for history repeating itself!
Yes, the same issue that nearly killed the sport in 2004 is once again looming, but the NHL doesn’t seem in a big rush to do anything about it. Their inactivity has already cost them their European tour, and will have a huge impact on this summer and next season whether a deal is struck or not.
One of the biggest issues that will come up, assuming there’s even a season, is the salary cap for 2012-2013. The league is set to announce the new salary cap in late June, and it’s widely believed that it will continue the upward trend it’s been on since hockey returned from its last lockout. The salary cap in 2005 coming out of the lockout was around $39 million. Since then, revenues have been steadily increasing for hockey, thanks to a strong Canadian dollar with vibrant markets, compelling playoff races, and an enhanced profile in the United States, which has resulted in an ever-increasing cap. This season, the cap was set at $64.3 million and is estimated to go up as high as $69 to $70 million. Sounds super good, right?
Well, not so much. One of the key negotiating points for the next CBA is believed to be the share of hockey-related revenue, and it’s expected that the league will press to cut into the share given to players significantly, which will cause the actual salary cap to be much lower after the new CBA. This affects many of the top teams, like Vancouver and Chicago, whose GMs routinely spend right up to the cap adding to their team during the offseason through free agency and through re-signing their current players. A team can’t expect to go out and spend up the extra cap space they’re given in June if it’s going to be taken away again in September, can they? One possibility that’s been discussed is an “amnesty” clause, which was granted to teams in the post-lockout CBA where they were allowed to buy out one contract in order to get under the new salary cap. Nobody thinks that’s going to be offered this time around, and Bettman thinks you’re stupid for asking, but appreciates that you did anyway, dummy:
“We’re not discussing specifics of what my or may not be in the collective bargaining agreement. But that’s a nice question…I know it would make your life more interesting, and I say that with the utmost affection and respect, but there’s no reason to do that. OK? I understand the fixation on collective bargaining, but we aren’t even bargaining, so let’s focus on something else, OK?”
Anytime you have to specify you’re saying something “with the utmost affection and respect,” it means you’re saying something dickish and confirming that you are kind of a jerk yourself. The “fixation on collective bargaining,” that Bettman is so exasperated about is merely people who enjoy watching or covering the sport of hockey wanting to continue watching and or covering the sport of hockey next fall and winter. To brush that concern off because “we aren’t even barganing” is a cop-out and should have been met with, “Follow up question: Yeah, why aren’t you bargaining?”
Bettman should be the last person that needs to be reminded of what happens when labor disputes go unresolved. The lockout in 2004 nearly killed the NHL, and Bettman was there for the whole thing. Maybe they were asking for it to happen again when they let him stick around, but CBA’s aren’t drawn up overnight. They take time for the sides to posture, make hollow threats, and hold their breath until they get their way! If Bettman has any questions about how well a CBA negotiation goes when you’re trying to cut into players’ shares of revenue, he should call up David Stern and ask how their labor standoff went. There has to be some sense of urgency to avoid another lenghty labor battle coming from the commissioner’s office, right?
“My own view on collective bargaining is it’s better to not have to focus on it ’til you have to focus on it.”
Yeah, not worrying about a problem until it becomes a big problem sounds like the way to go. There will be plenty of time to worry about collective bargaining later…like during another lockout, for example.