NHL Players Simply Cannot Cave This Time

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. That’s probably the saying going through the head of every member of the NHL Players Association at this time.

Donald Fehr knows the players cannot afford to give in (Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE)

In 2005, The NHL Board of Governors broke the backs and spirits of the players association and executive director Bob Goodenow. After the governors did the unthinkable and cancelled a full season, the players did what they needed to do for the game and they swallowed a hard salary cap. They gave back 24% of their salaries. They did all of this for the better of the game. The idea was the players would do this once to get the ball rolling and give the owners the tools they need to succeed, and control themselves this time.

Now the owners want them to do it again. The hypocrisy is outrageous. Guys like Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold are handing out $98 million dollar contracts and then wanting clauses to protect themselves from spending more money. Self control is non-existent among many of these NHL governors.

Let’s be real, 2005 wasn’t really a negotiation either. The players did well now that we look back, but those numbers in the last CBA were pretty darn close to what the owners’ firm offer was all along which was 53-54% of the revenue to the players. The lowered free agency age and other sweeteners were thrown in as consolation prizes.

Ironic, isn’t it? The NHL owners and Commissioner Gary Bettman now seem content with a 3rd lockout in 18 years for a deal that was eerily close to the one they demanded in 2004-05.

Bettman’s stubbornness is what has caused him to be in the situation he’s in right now. The NHL pretty much got the deal they wanted, and now are prepared to lock out the players because they learned of their own mistakes in the deal. It screams of arrogance. It screams, “We’re billionaires so we can do whatever the heck we want and we don’t care if you like it or not.”

Bettman likes to argue that the other sports such as the NFL and NBA have made cutbacks to player salary percentages. It’s mind boggling that Bettman can compare the NHL to a league that has serious revenue sharing and a huge TV deal. Bettman can’t even get his hard line owners to agree to any significant revenue sharing to save his precious non-traditional hockey markets. So much so that the Atlanta to Winnipeg relocation fee was probably used to keep his owners quiet on the losses absorbed in Phoenix.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (cr: VancityAllie@flickr)

Here’s the problem for Bettman: The NHLPA has always been one of the most efficient and tightly knit unions in all of sports. They won’t make the same concessions this time. Nor should they. Throw Don Fehr into that equation and the NHL cannot expect the players to cave again. You have a model that works in most traditional hockey markets. That should require a tweaking, not an overhaul.

Another problem is the pool the percentages are being drawn from according to the NHL’s offers. The “hockey related revenue” pool is a smaller pool of money the players would get a percentage of. So the “50-50” numbers are exaggerated and bogus.

It’s time to cut the crap and expect the owners to be good partners. In Major League Baseball, the owners that need to control their spending do so. They have been successful and have a serious revenue sharing plan that works. The owners exercise self control based on the size of their markets, and it works. The Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays have been successful franchises under a small market model. It makes zero sense to bring everyone down to a level where a team in Phoenix and Florida can spend with the New York Rangers. If Lou Lamoriello can’t afford to spend to the cap, why does he? That’s on him.

Multiple reports from extremely reliable reporters in the industry sense division in the ranks of the governors. Sound familiar? 1994. In 2004 there was no division among owners. In 1994 there was. Do the math. The players have to and must ride this out, even if it costs the league a couple of months of the regular season. As fans, as writers, as people employed by the arena, you just want it resolved now. But when you look at it on paper, you can’t be selfish. A $3.3 billion dollar industry deserves to be negotiated fairly and sometimes that takes time.

It’s easy for fans to say we cannot have another lockout and the players need to cave. But if you take your fan hat off for just a few minutes, it’s easy to see the players are fighting the good fight for themselves and the players of the future, and have to get a good deal on this one at all costs. The owners think that because they broke the players in 2005, they can do it again. That’s a miscalculation they will come to realize very soon.

The move to sack Paul Kelly which everyone originally didn’t like now makes sense. It showed the NHLPA had zero trust for the league. Based on what we’ve seen in the negotiations so far, their gut feeling was correct.

Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs is widely known as a hard-line negotiator (cr: Delaware North PR)

As much as we all love hockey, if you look at it even from a neutral perspective, the players cannot cave this time. If it takes a couple of months, so be it. Put the pressure on the owners to stab the fans in the back for a third time. Put the pressure on them to eat those gates early in the season. Put pressure on them to cancel the Winter Classic and tempt another season. The court of public opinion still means something. The owners don’t want to risk the fans hating them forever. The owners don’t want to risk taking a step backwards where it hurts the most: In their checkbooks.

It’s highly unlikely the owners will let it go on like they did last time. A cancelled season can’t happen, can it? It would almost certainly mean Gary Bettman’s termination and alienating fans and network partners again. The players should try to make a deal in good faith, but at the same time they need to call the owners bluff this time.

While things seem dire now, there’s really nothing pointing to the owners being willing to cancel another season. Maybe a couple of months at the most. Sadly, the owners will not cave until they have to, so it will probably take time. But they’ll cave this time surely. The names that have floated out there and been leaked as taking hard line positions stirs up the rumors of division among governors.

It’s the owners turn to make some sacrifices and negotiate in good faith. The players did it last time. With the future in mind, the players should not do it twice. If they do, the NHLPA becomes the NFLPA and they’ll do whatever the owners want every negotiation. It’s too dangerous of a trend to begin.

Though it may be hard for a while, the players must stay strong and convince each other they simply cannot cave this time.

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson is a Senior Correspondent and has been covering the Philadelphia Flyers for The Hockey Writers since the 2008-09 season. Justin has covered all levels of hockey across the United States and Canada. Justin is a graduate of Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ and currently resides in Southern New Jersey.

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