Let us not bury the lead: as of this writing, we are less than five full days away from the expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHL (league and owners) and the NHLPA (players). While it has not been formally announced, the League, as represented by mouthpiece and commissioner Gary Bettman, has mentioned that the owners are not willing to continue to operate under the guidelines of the current CBA and that a lockout may well come to pass without a new agreement by the midnight of September 15 deadline.
While many assumed that the public would automatically side with the owners, the opposite has been the norm thus far. Part of those early assumptions seem to have arisen from experiences in the previous lockout, as fans may be more apt to attribute a human condition such as greed to the humans in the spotlight, the players, while the corporations and conglomerations that ran the laundromats cleaning their heroes' uniforms were faceless, thus devoid of emotion and feeling and thus escaping public retribution.
Today, media is a far more prevalent influence on public opinion than before. Not in the sense that the public is more apt to be responsive to the media, but that we are more inundated by media in all its forms and variations and thus are more likely to know the key players behind the teams we root for and those we do not. Not only that, but now we can have quasi-personal relationships with our favorite players, as more players join the Twitter world almost daily. While it used to be easy to corner one or another side in the labor battle as the guilty party, we now have so much information at hand to shade and discredit either side that the issues at hand can become easily obfuscated, drawing us to paralysis by analysis. On Monday alone, ESPN.com's hockey page had competing articles leading off with statements by Rangers' owner James Dolan and various members of the St. Louis Blues playing staff respectively, indicating their desire to get the season rolling.
Who to believe? What lines should we be reading between? We should first start with a few basic truths.
What Happens After Saturday, Midnight
Outside of the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, the current CBA will have expired. Barring a last minute agreement, that would leave the players and owners without a codified set of standards through which to run their season. Although NHLPA Director Donald Fehr has stated the players' willingness to continue to play with the current CBA while continuing to negotiate a new one in-season, the league has already nixed that concept as a non-starter.
As such, without a new contract to play on with, the players can either strike, or the league can lock the players out. In either case, there is a clear aggressor and a clear victim. Should the players take the initiative and strike, they are the aggressors and the league owners the victims. On the other hand, a lockout means that the owners are firing the first shot, thus forcing the players to react. As the players have already stated a willingness to continue to play under the current, functional if imperfect format, any work stoppage seems likely to come from the NHL, with the owners locking out the players.
It seems simple because it is. Should the owners elect to lock out the players, we should make no mistake in that this is a choice. This is not a necessity brought on by an inoperable financial situation.
Speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Conference in Boston last March, Bettman was proud to proclaim that his league was in the midst of a seven-year run of record breaking revenue generating seasons. Not only had things never been better, but he was also clear to attribute their fiscal success to policies generated in the wake of the previous lockout, the one that wiped out the entirety of the 2004-05 NHL season. Again, that was a case of the ownerswhile a moderately different ownership cabal than that in place today, many of the owners of 2004-05 have held on to their assetsacting as the aggressors and closing their doors until their employees were ready to work by their rules. Although many league owners frequently cry poor, they were happy to continue paying the rent on their leased arenas (most are not owned outright by the teams) without a cent of income returning to them for a full calendar year so as to ensure that they would never again have to spend above a set amount in a given season in player wages. This, of course, refers to the salary cap that was a staple of the current CBA. There were other changes to the CBA as well, but the salary cap reigns above all in importance both actual and perceived.
Six years ago, the owners got what they wanted. The players made many concessions, agreeing to play by a set of structures and limitations that was far different from those they enjoyed when they first joined the league. Today, as a testament to how fleeting an NHL career usually is, most of the players who were active during the previous lockout are no longer union members. Last season, 984 different players suited up for at least one NHL game. This does not include players who spent the entire season on the injured reserve, such as Marc Savard, or those youngsters who were called up to receive NHL per diems, only to spend the evening watching the proceedings from the press box. Of that group of 984, only 272 (27.6%) had appeared in an NHL game prior to the last lockout. In other words, nearly three out of every four players faced with an uncertain future were not even around for the last work stoppage. If we were only to look for similarities between the last work stoppage and the impending one, it is much clearer on the side of the League, with the same Commissioner and many of the same owners, than it is on the players, many of whom have changed with the seasons. Furthermore, that figure serves as a stark reminder that the active playing career of the typical NHLer is no more than six years.
Think about that for a moment. These young men are paid handsomely for the sweat of their exertions, and they all know, down to a man, that it can be taken from them in an instant. Whether through the attrition of enhanced competition or enhanced age and diminished skill, they have a very tenuous grip on their jobs at the best of times. Today's job market is such that most of us can expect to remain in our current place of employ for a limited time, yet for the vast majority, we can expect our wages to rise as we age and gain experience and expertise. For NHL players, their paydays start nicely, and if they make it past the RFA stage of their careers, they can explode. Very few maintain their stature in the game for long enough to get a second lucrative free agent contract. And in all cases, once they are out, they can expect to never earn salaries that can even approach those of their early adulthood.
Consider that when you read that the NHL wants to expand the reach of a players' entry level contract from three to five years, while unrestricted free agency requirements would be bumped from seven years' experience to 10. In essence, such a proposal locks nearly three quarters of all players out of the type of payday that will allow them to comfortably segue into a new career as the one they spent their entire youths working towards dies out.
We can quibble on into the presumed Winter Classic about the fairness inherent in any given split of hockey related revenuethe definition of which seems to be a moving target as negotiations sputter alongbut the very fact that the owners would be allowing themselves a monopoly on player movement and salary structure for a super-majority of the player population is grossly unjust. The size of the pie should be of little relevance to most players if their own share will be inherently stopped short. With most reports of the second CBA proposal put forward by the league focusing almost solely on the hockey related revenue issue, this critical factor has been shrouded from view. It is, after all, much easier to focus on the big numbers, when the contract stipulations would only be effecting individual players, each of whom has to decide for himself how much of his life he should devote to the game. As recent restriction on signing bonuses in the Major League Baseball draft were implemented this past season, one of the biggest fears was that the soft cap would drive talented multi-sport athletes away from the rink and into sports with greater opportunities. While no one talks about that now, the next Seth Jones may be more likely to follow in his father's footsteps than to lace up skates.
The CBA proposed by the NHL will not affect the Sidney Crosbys and Evgeni Malkins of the game. Those marquee players will simply see their salaries make up a greater proportion of their teams' cap space. It is the Maxime Talbot types, the players who are decent but likely replaceable by younger, cheaper players as soon as their entry level and RFA contracts expire, who will no longer have the option of taking a healthy salary from another team as a means of prolonging their careers.
Leave the talk of hockey related revenue to the business pages. If the NHL has its way, the league of the future will be one restricted to stars and kids. To some, that speaks to the ultimate in sabermetric efficiency. To this writer, and hopefully to you, too, these negotiations represent another attempted strike against the middle class, looking to eliminate the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Not monetarily, but matter-of-factly, as they propose to eliminate the players who straddle the two grounds. Should the league win on this front, the salary cap will be considered a quaint reminder of simpler times.
triking out the hockey middle class could be the straw that forces the players away from the NHL and into a more equitable situation and possibly into a new league that could compete with the NHL.
Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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