NHL Will Never Completely Break Union

The NHL Players’ Association has long been considered one of the strongest unions not only in sports, but in any industry. They are a different type of monster. That’s why back in 2004 when the NHL released a report they had lost $273 million the previous year there was a collective gasp in the hockey world. They knew trouble was on its way. They were right.

When the NHL revealed that big red number in 2003-04, writers and fans alike knew that a lockout was unavoidable. The philosophies were just so different. The owners were probably willing to cancel 2 seasons to get cost certainty, and the players thought they were unfairly being blamed for the league’s financial woes when really it was the owners who could not control their spending. Former NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow argued at the time, “The owners already have cost certainty. It’s called a budget and you stick to it.”

Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs (right) [cr: Delaware North PR]
The owners knew they could not control themselves then, and they know they cannot do it now. The problem with the owners’ collective bargaining strategy is that they think they can wait out the players just as the NFL and NBA have done multiple times. Unfortunately for them, this strategy is unlikely to work and if they have the gall to cancel another season over being less than $200 million apart, the relationship between the owners and players will be forever divided. No smiles. No handshakes. All that will be left is resentment toward the owners from the players, as if it hasn’t already been bubbling fiercely under the surface over the last decade or two.

In 2004, everyone knew the league was headed for a lockout. In 2012, I think most people were cautiously optimistic it would probably be a lockout but not a terribly long one. The collective gasps weren’t there like they were in 2004.

When Frank Seravalli from the Philadelphia Daily News put out a story about Flyers chairman Ed Snider not being one of the “hard liners” essentially, it sounded legitimate. Frank is a high integrity journalist and would not just publish something like this carelessly. Same with Bruins insider Joe Haggerty claiming that Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs was rude and expressing immature and inappropriate behavior toward an alternate governor of the Winnipeg Jets who had a differing opinion on lockout strategy. These are 2 world class journalists who are pretty much accused of being liars now. Something just isn’t right.

Flyers chairman Ed Snider (cr: Comcast-Spectacor PR)

Owners like Jacobs probably got a whiff of how the NFL and NBA’s CBA negotiations went and started licking their chops. But just one problem: The NHL Players Association is nothing like the NFLPA or NBPA. NHL players have a sense of tradition, a sense of loyalty to those that came before them and those that will come after them. Hockey players grew up bonding on outdoor rinks on winter days, or with their parents renting out ice time for them at 5 AM at a local rink.

Hockey is not a cheap game to play. The majority of hockey players are not coming from the same backgrounds and same upbringings as a lot of NFL and NBA players are. This isn’t saying that those backgrounds are a bad thing, just very different. Many NHL players are coming from a strong family-first upbringing. In most cases, in order to make it in hockey it requires a total commitment from not just the player, but from their families growing up. We don’t see that same type of thing from NFL and especially NBA players. We saw a big problem with NBA players needing money so bad they had to come prematurely straight from high school. That’s why in the past it has been easier for those unions to cave.

Many NHL players have lawyers for parents, college professors, bankers, small business owners, farmers, etc. Many stars came from a deep rooted culture in rural Canadian communities. It just isn’t the same as the other leagues. There’s a greater overall sense of loyalty.

In 2005, the NHL owners got the deal they wanted, but at what cost? It took awhile for the NHL to completely rebuild back into respectability, and the discovery of the Winter Classic was a big reason for that. The Winter Classic has done a ton to bring media to the NHL in the United States, and yes, the owners cancelled it. The NHL bridged the revenue gap and got somewhere close to the NBA with the future of potential popularity looking bright. They were cemented in that 4th spot for North American sports, a spot they almost lost in 2004-05. That’s all gone now and getting worse every day.

Will the arenas remain empty all season? (cr: Inhyung/Flickr)

Nobody is suggesting the Collective Bargaining Agreement shouldn’t change. There are a lot of things there the players should work to fix. The back loading contracts that worked so well in circumventing the salary cap was a major loophole providing a large advantage to big market teams. But a 50/50 split and honoring contracts the owners negotiated in good faith seems reasonable. It’s almost as if the owners knew they were going to get the players to give some of that money back when they were negotiating. It’s hard to believe that’s even legal.

In this round of negotiations following the fallout of the NFL and NBA negotiations, it’s almost as if the NHL is just looking out for the teams in very deep trouble such as Phoenix and Columbus, almost as if to say, “If this new CBA doesn’t allow all 30 of us to make money, it’s not good enough for us!”

That strategy simply will not work. The only people to blame for those markets being in trouble are well, the league owners. Many forecasters didn’t see success in those markets to begin with, but those expansion fees probably just looked nice to the owners at the time.

The NHL Players Association is unique. They have always been iron clad. It took cancelling a whole season to get the players to cave in 2005. They now have arguably the most successful union director in modern times guiding their negotiations on top of the bond and strength they already had.

Jeremy Jacobs, Gary Bettman, Bill Daly and the hard line crew: You may get the players to cave, but you won’t do it before sacrificing another season. Is that something you’re really willing to do? Just think about the strength of the union you’re attempting to claim total and complete victory over. Is it really worth it? Or is it time to negotiate on ideas other than just the ones that are your own?