The NHL-NHLPA Labour negations are playing out like a meeting between alien cultures. Not only does each side have different wants and desires, they also are approaching the negotiations in completely different temperaments. While the Player’s Association expresses interest in a fair and balanced resolution, the owners are angry and seek to beat the players into a bloody pulp. The players want to solve the issues that have plagued the league for more than a generation. The owners simply want to acquire more power and control over their employees.
There is clear delineation point where the owners moved from cordial and fair-minded to cantankerous sword-rattlers. That point occurred last spring when the NFL owners managed to completely browbeat the NFLPA in their league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the confrontational attitude took firmer root in the minds of the NHL owners when they saw their NBA cousins achieve labour success over the NBAPA in December. Before these new agreements were signed, the NHL believed that negotiations in good faith amidst growing revenue streams was good business but in 2011, both the NFL and NBA acquired more favourable labour agreements over the players in spite of increased revenues simply by threatening the players with a long-term lockout.
This tactic in negotiating has been present in the regular workforce for some time now but – the NFL aside – strong-arm tactics haven’t been anywhere nearly as effective in North American pro sports. Players generate too much revenue, and are a relatively rare commodity. The NHL implemented a salary cap only after locking out players for an entire season during a time of clear crisis in the NHL’s revenue model. When the NBA first instituted a salary cap in the 1980s, its league was also in dire financial straits. The game could not survive in an environment where general managers continuously tried to screw with each other without any checks and balances. The current situation is quite different.
Aside from the League’s agenda to decrease the powers of the NHLPA, owners want to put a stop to the same contract offers that they’ve been making to players this summer. Philadelphia only made its obscene offer to Shea Webber because it believed that Nashville lacked the resources to match a front-loaded 14-year, $110 million deal. The League wants to roll back salaries and set limits on contract offers because owners know that in a competitive league with only one Stanley Cup champion, they won’t be able to help themselves. If they were capable of doing so, player salaries would still be around the same range that they were twenty years ago. Asking players to accept salary cuts gives owners the opportunity to overcome their mistakes and correct boneheaded decisions.
Understandably, this simple equation is rather unappealing for the Player’s Association, as it requires the players to bear all the burdens of sacrifice while absolving owners of any culpability for the problems that the league faces. So instead of offering angry refusals or counter-offers using the owner’s framework, the players are approaching the negotiations in a more rational frame of mind. They understand that the revenue problems that the leagues faces have more to do with unequal distribution of revenues than it does with the size of players’ slice of the pie. No matter how many salary rollbacks the league unleashes, Tampa Bay will always make less money than Toronto.
The players want the game to grow and to prosper, and they are willing to sacrifice as much as $800 million dollars over the next four seasons in order to achieve their aims. But the players don’t want the owners to simply pocket the money and laugh all the way to the bank. Instead, they want the owners to redistribute $250 million dollars per season from high-revenue teams in New York or Montreal to Columbus and Phoenix. This revenue sharing proposal treats the league as a place where teams are members of a community that watches out for another, and where players everywhere work in harmonious co-operation with the franchises they represent.
This makes the quest for control by the owners appear poorly considered and selfish. Even if the owners were simply giving the Players’ Association a wish list, asking the players to accept significantly less revenue (from 57% to 46%) does absolutely nothing to resolve the league’s systematic flaws, while completely ignoring the economic disparity between teams with higher revenue and teams with lower revenue. When the NBA and NFL lowered the share of revenue their players could have they still set in place meaningful revenue sharing that narrows the income gap between places like Dallas and Green Bay.
The current NHL model does virtually nothing to prevent sunbelt American teams from feeling the pinch if their team fails to qualify for the post-season. Some teams even struggle to turn a profit even with a few playoff gates swelling the coffers. The player’s proposed agreement addresses this problem and offers a solution. The first offer that the NHL made left the owners running on the same treadmill they’ve run along since 1991.
While it remains to be seen whether the owners are prepared to negotiate honestly, the fact that the players have shown no desire to butt heads or be antagonistic is bound to take some of the wind out of the seething anger displayed by Gary Bettman over the last several weeks. The owners want the players to cry “Uncle!” but the PA is determined to have substantive dialogue rather than approach negotiations with stubborn defiance or hostility. Thus far the labour negotiations have been a one-way fight. The owners simply want to “win” the CBA negotiations whether the agreement makes sense or not. The players want an agreement that works and that lasts for a substantial period of time.
This is true despite the fact that their proposal is an agreement that lasts just four years. Rather than remain stuck in a system that may not work as well as the players believe it will, they suggest a three-year window where both sides can witness how this new CBA works in practice, and that gives the players an option to revert to the previous agreement for a fourth season if flaws in the system become evident. The fact that the owners are unlikely to give the players the right to unilaterally revert to the current agreement is beside the point. The players are sending the message to the owners that the players are educating themselves to make sure that what they want is good for the game.
Given the stance that Players’ Association is taking, I don’t think it’s probable that the owners can replicate the success that the NBA and NFL achieved in labour negotiations last year. While the players most certainly want to play, and to resolve the dispute, there are no indications whatsoever that anyone in the Player’s Association is going to sign an agreement simply just to play hockey again. Because they want a system that works, I don’t feel that the owners can squeeze the players into an unfavourable agreement simply by withholding a few paychecks.
While the players don’t have billion dollar companies or deep-pocketed relatives, these are not the same disorganized players who were locked out for a full season in 2005. Led by Donald Fehr, the players are well-organized and well-informed about the status of the negotiations. There haven’t been rumours of players building a substantial war chest as they did prior to the last lockout but it’s plausible to think that they are managing their money better now that players are constantly given educational seminars about the money they are making and how quickly it can disappear. The expiry of the CBA surprised nobody, and Fehr spent two full seasons discussing the matter with everyone in the PA.
It certainly doesn’t help the players if they have to miss paychecks but how can owners force the players to sign an agreement that does more to let the problems of the game fester than it does directly harm the income the players make? The players are not thinking about their own prosperity inasmuch as they are concerned about the prosperity of the game itself. Too many teams have gone through bankruptcy for anyone to believe that unchecked salaries are good for the game.
Yet unlike the owners, the players look ready to address this issue head-on. High individual player salaries, or even high team payrolls are not directly responsible for what ails the league. The inequitable balance of revenue is a much greater problem. The fact that players are willing to address this fact is a positive sign for the future of the game but until the owners are willing to come to terms with this reality, expect to see the game locked out.