Well, it is here, the thing every red-blooded hockey fan has feared for the past several seasons: a lockout. As in the 1994-1995 season when the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) and the owners couldn't agree on labor terms, the players didn't go on strike like what players in other sports do. Rather, they were locked out from playing.
In the early 1990's the NHL owners got together and decided that player salaries were getting out of hand and wanted to impose a salary cap. The players would have none of it. The work stoppage lasted 103 days and the season finally got underway on January 20, 1995, just in time before the entire season was declared lost, where each team only played 48 games, as opposed to the normal 82. The players and owners struck a deal: The Collective Bargaining Agreement that would last ten years, until September 15, 2004. It was originally supposed to last only six, but it was extended part in due to the desire for NHL players to participate in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. The Collective Bargaining Agreement basically put in place a system of salary caps only at the entry level, complicated restricted free agency rules, and reduced salary arbitration rights.
If you believe what the league/owners say, the CBA failed because the entry level caps were ineffective, restricted free agent offer sheets went crazy, restricted free agents refusing to play until contracts were renegotiated, and payroll disparities widened to unprecedented levels and the league, along with many teams, is just bleeding money. They lamented the fact that overblown payrolls basically allowed franchises to buy a championship, or buy themselves deep into the playoffs.
The owners blame the NHLPA for the lockout, citing that they have not even attempted to compromise, and even went so far as to say that their last proposal was a step backward from the previous one.
If you believe the players and the NHLPA, it's not their fault, it's the owners and the NHL -- and, more specifically, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. They claim that they have compromised. Their "four point" proposal supposedly includes:
- An acceptance of a five percent wage rollback on all existing contracts that supposedly will save the Owners $100 million
- "Changes" to the Entry Level System that will supposedly would save another sixty million
- A luxury tax on teams whose payrolls exceed the "salary cap," or, since the term "salary cap" is being avoided by both parties, a tax that exceeds the "agreed-upon level."
- And a modification of the current ineffective revenue sharing plan (most people don't even realize there is actually a current revenue sharing system in the NHL)
"We're not closing our eyes to the financial problems the league has," John LeClair said about the disagreement. "We made many concessions, but the reality of the situation is, it's not our fault.
"We didn't create this problem."
LeClair is referring to the opinion held by a lot of folks that, while the players seem to be ignoring the fact that the league bleeds millions every year and player salaries are not congruent with what the league makes, Gary Bettman created the situation himself. He's the one who tried to turn the NHL into a mainstream league by renaming the conferences and divisions, diluted the talent pool with hyper expansion, and allowed owners to throw all kinds of money at the players. You can't expect the players to turn the money down. It doesn't matter how much money a human being makes, be it twenty thousand dollars or twenty million a year, he or she would almost never turn down an offer for more.
So, since Bettman and the owners created the situation they're in, made this bed, should they lie in it? No. The reasons they got themselves into the situation notwithstanding, the fact is that now the league is bleeding money, along with many franchises, something has to be done. No matter how much Bettman and a lot of owners, players, and fans wanted it, hockey has not, and may never become, a mainstream sensation like football, baseball, or basketball. Attendance pales in comparison. The television contracts are a joke. For the most part, nobody watches a hockey game unless their team is playing or it's the Stanley Cup Finals. And that's only if they're hockey fans to begin with.
So who is more to blame?
Almost anything you're likely to hear in the media is biased either one way or the other, because most of what you hear either comes from the NHLPA or the Owners/League. There's so much spinning going on it makes the average fan dizzy. There's so many stretched truths and so much out-and-out bullshit who knows what or who to believe? I have the answer. It's simple: blame both. Both have dug their heels into the sand and refuse to budge. There's a lot of talk about "resolve" on both sides. Both sides are thinking more of themselves than the sport. Both seem to not be considering the bigger picture. The lockout, if it lasts an entire season -- and even into the 2005-2006 season which some pessimists predict -- it would be devastating to the league and the future of professional hockey itself.
"It is going to be real bad," St. Louis forward Keith Tkachuk said this summer. "Everyone is prepared that there won't be a season and there might not be two seasons."
It's a little crude to say, but I do think it's a perfect way to put it, both sides have their collective heads up their collective asses. Neither seem to be caring very much about their fans, just the almighty dollar.
Keith Tkachuk also stated that there's no way the players would ever agree to a salary cap, that the mere notion of one is incomprehensible. I'm sorry "Walt," you're paid $10 million a year to score how many goals in the playoffs? One? None?? Maybe you should be paid less!
Unfortunately, a lot of the players, if not most, feel the same way he does.
"As a union, we've got to stick together and follow what the guys ahead of us have done," said goalie Dwayne Roloson, the Minnesota Wild's player representative. "It goes way back to when the union started to in '94, when they made a big stand. We've got to make sure that we take care of things that they've accomplished."
Let's sum up a little here and break down what both the players and owners are proposing:
- A hard cap on team spending to $40 million (about half of what the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings spend and about $20 million less than what the Blues spend).
- A reduction in average player salary to $1.3 million a season (the average salary now is $1.8 million - the average salary in 94-95 when the CBA was struck was $558,000).
- Even though the players have said they'd never accept a salary cap, they are proposing a luxury tax for any team that exceeds a salary cap (one thing that is just a little bit conflicting)
- Five percent wage rollback
- Modification of current revenue sharing system
With it impossible to know who to believe completely, the real question to the 2004 NHL Lockout is: who will knuckle under first? The following quote from Nashville left wing Jim McKenzie, a 15-year NHL veteran, is very telling:
"You look around here, we've got two, three guys skating. Nobody's coming in. No one's made plans to come in. Nobody's working at the office."
"Maybe this will bring some kind of finality to it."
The fact is, the Owners have more to lose. If the entire season is trashed, they lose billions. The players, well, they lose their salary. But the players don't have to pay staff, administrators, managers, all the people that the League has to keep in their employ. Some are being laid off, but the Owners can't lay them all off. If play suddenly resumes they cannot scramble to hire all new workers or convince the previous ones to come back. So basically, the players can sit on their duffs while the Owners pay a lot of people to do a lot of nothing, not to mention losing all of the money they were going to make that season.
Actually, though, the players won't be sitting on their butts. They're already starting to do what they did ten years ago: play and practice in other places. Jaromir Jagr is skating with the Czech team Rabat Kladno, the team he called home before he entered the NHL. Several NHL players are now involved with the Finnish league. Two of Sweden's biggest stars, Peter Forsberg from the Avalanche and Leafs captain Mats Sundin, plan to play for their country. Three Senators players will play for the farm team in Binghamton, N.Y. and the Sens goalie Dominik Hasek will work out with the team for at least two weeks. With the players still doing what they love to do and the Owners doing nothing but losing money, it will ultimately be them who will give in first, like last time, but hopefully not before they get a reasonable compromise from the players. They're right, the NHL cannot continue to operate indefinitely in the league's current economic system.
Sources: sportsillustrated.cnn.com, nhlpa.com, nhl.com, http://www.contracostatimes.com, www.yahoo.com