CBA negotiations highlight hypocrisy

Ryan Fulford
July 25, 2012

“Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana

The lockout of 2004-05 is no doubt still fresh in everyone’s memory, from owners to players to fans as the NHL and NHLPA begin Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations.

On one side of the table sit the players – and by extension the fans – hoping they don’t have to suffer through another lost season.

Facing them are the owners of the 30 respective franchises that comprise the NHL, and the NHL Commissioner (a.k.a. the owners’ puppet), Gary Bettman.

While it’s too early to ascertain whether another lockout is in order, the negotiations will more than likely be long, intense and fierce.

The NHL fired the opening salvo when it tabled its initial offer that included several changes to the current CBA.

Chief among them are the owners’ insistence on an 11 percent reduction, from 57 percent to 46 percent of the player’s share of hockey-related revenue.

Also of note are the proposed changes to contracts and salaries. 

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Owners would like to see contract terms capped at five years. They’d like to do away with front-loaded contracts and signing bonuses as well. They’re also proposing that a player’s salary remain consistent throughout the term of his contract.

Other propositions include increasing the length of entry-level contracts from three to five years and having players play 10 seasons before they qualify for unrestricted free agency.

Generally, those would seem like reasonable starting points for a negotiation. To be sure, they’re asking for more than they’re willing to settle for. That’s negotiating 101. However, it’s likely the owners won’t want to settle for much less. Which means hockey fans should strap themselves in for what could be a lengthy battle, with the potential to turn ugly.

That’s because the hypocrisy inherent in the demands of the owners are audacious, to say the least.

The true issue at hand isn’t what they’re asking for in their first proposal, it’s that they’re asking for it in order to save themselves from themselves. After years of operating in gray areas and circumventing the current CBA, owners have finally realized the errors of their ways. Their initial offer is an attempt to rectify their past misdeeds and keep a bigger piece of the pie as revenues grow.

It’s pitiful.

After signing the likes of Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Ovechkin, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Brad Richards to lengthy contracts (the collective sum of their contract terms totals a mind-boggling 66 years), owners now want to rid themselves of an uncomfortable bed they’ve made for themselves to sleep in.

It was okay to circumvent the salary cap and exploit loopholes in order to procure top talent before, but hey now, better put a stop to that at some point, right?

After years of front-loading contracts, the owners have decided a player’s salary should remain consistent with their cap hit throughout the duration of their deal. What a novel concept. And it’s about damn time.

The very nature of the manner in which the expiring CBA was designed was to even the playing field and promote parity by allowing the lesser lights (financially speaking) to compete with the high rollers in free agency sweepstakes and by retaining top talent. Yet the insistence on deep-pocketed owners doing everything possible in order to gain an edge rendered that notion ineffective.

Furthermore, revenue sharing hasn’t done a thing to enable teams in Phoenix or Nashville to compete with big-market franchises like, say, Philadelphia. Right, Ed Snider?

This is where the hypocrisy regarding owners becomes so clearly evident. The affluent Snider, chairman of Comcast Spectator, used his financial leverage to secure Shea Weber’s signature on an offer sheet, essentially forcing Nashville to spend money they may not comfortably have. Don’t for one minute think that Snider wasn’t privy to the NHL’s initial proposal in CBA negotiations and what it would constitute. While certain aspects of the proposed CBA would help even the playing field a bit, namely by way of eliminating front-loaded contracts teams such as Nashville can’t afford, Snider thought it best to get one final kick at the can in before the current CBA expired.

There is nothing wrong with the Weber offer per se; it’s all within the rules of the current CBA. However, it violates the spirit of fair play as much as it does the salary cap. $68 million in bonuses over the first six years is an amount few teams have the luxury of being able to afford to pay. As cliché as it sounds, Snider bullied the little guy, knowing full well Nashville has always operated on a tight budget. Additionally, it makes a mockery of the agreement fans and players lost a full season of hockey for.

Many will say one can’t blame a player for signing a long-term contract such as Weber. Or Parise. Or Suter. And that’s true. In a game that can be volatile at the best of times and physically taxing on one’s body, it’s best to secure finances for the future. However, it’s the owners who have dug themselves into their own graves. By tendering such offers, they set an unrealistic market value over grossly inflated terms in order to stay within the (loose) confines of the salary cap. And now they want help getting out of it.

With Donald Fehr leading negotiations for the NHLPA, a leader who is staunchly opposed to having his players agree to a pay cut, that help isn’t going to be easy to come by.

The problem Fehr and the players will run into, however, is that the owners are likely to remain rather steadfast in their demands. The owners are incredibly rich, but the rich want to get richer. They’re more than willing to sit out another season in order to get a bigger slice of the hockey-related revenue pie. They don’t care about the fans. It’s about money, because owning a team means they’re running a business. And no business is worth its salt if it isn’t profitable.

To highlight that notion, look no further than the issue of Olympic participation by NHL players, something that will surely be a point of contention. It’s a sticking point because the owners receive no compensation for games played during the Olympics. Yet fans across the globe love nothing more than seeing the best of the best compete on the international stage.

Negotiations have just begun and the NHLPA is yet to make their proposal, but a lockout is a possibility. And if that is indeed the case later this year, fingers should be pointed at the owners, the index and the middle.

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The Author:

Ryan Fulford