The NHL lockout is about money, millions of it, billions of it, and that makes this complicated enough – from defining hockey- related revenue, to deciding how much of it each side should receive, to determining everything else in the equation.
The problem is, this is about more than money. "This lockout is a bit about philosophy," one team executive said. In other words, this is also about power and pride – the owners showing who's boss, the players standing up for themselves – a classic labor battle that could become a prolonged conflict.
There is an undercurrent of unfinished business from the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season. It's not just because the league let the players' percentage of HRR climb to 57 percent and left too many loopholes for teams and agents to exploit, and now the league wants the players' percentage of HRR under 50 percent and those loopholes closed. It's not just because the union accepted a salary cap and 24-percent salary rollback, and now the players don't want to take another pay cut.
The owners think the players should be grateful for how the last labor agreement worked out for them; the players feel they were sold a bill of goods and are being sold one again. The players think the owners aren't solving their problems; the owners don't appreciate being told how to run their businesses. The owners don't respect the players' resolve; the players don't trust the owners' ethics.
And so, almost a week into the lockout, the sides still have no formal negotiations scheduled.
To agent Ian Pulver, a lawyer for the NHL Players' Association during the last lockout, it comes down to this: Do the owners really need the concessions they are demanding, or do they just want them?
"If wants trump needs, then this is going to take a long time," Pulver said. "What's in it for the players by waiting? Well, fairness."
Publicly and privately, league and team executives say they definitely need these concessions. Seven years of record revenues did not translate into seven years of record profits. Though some teams did well, too many lost money and the league was in the hole on the whole. Other costs rose even faster than player costs, while the owners' percentage of HRR declined to only 43. They know they never should have given the players 57, among other things. They know they are the bad guys this time, and they are still holding a hard line.
But only in private – and this is where it is convenient and wise to muzzle themselves, under threats of heavy fines – there is a measure of want, too, or maybe just a measure of can. It goes back to the old line used by league lawyer Bob Batterman: The owners are the ranchers, the players the cattle.
The ranchers feel they treat the cattle pretty well, and it goes beyond the paychecks that have ballooned under this collective bargaining agreement. You can joke about commissioner Gary Bettman's references to jet fuel and massage therapists. But long gone are the days of commercial flights and spartan dressing rooms. The players fly in chartered planes. They eat catered meals. They stay in luxury hotels. They get rubbed down in first-class facilities. The salary cap created an arms race in other areas – yes, exemplified by the Toronto Maple Leafs' overcrowded executive suite, but also by the Pittsburgh Penguins' posh players' lounge. All these things cost money, and that money comes out of the owners' pockets.
The owners respect NHLPA executive director Don Fehr as a worthy adversary, but they view him as an adversary the players selected specifically to bite the hands that feed them. They have found it "annoying," to use one description, the way Fehr has nitpicked everything from salaries to schedules to showerheads. Fehr has stuck his nose in places the owners feel it doesn't belong – like realignment – and there is a feeling that if the players don't like the NHL, they can see how they like it somewhere else.
The exodus to Europe does not threaten the owners when it comes to bargaining. It encourages them, because at least at this point no other league compares to the NHL. They think it creates a rift in the union. Some players are getting paid while others aren't, and those getting paid are making less than they would have made in the NHL while enjoying fewer creature comforts and risking their health. Penguins center Evgeni Malkin came back from major knee surgery to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. He goes over to Russia, and a guy goes for his knees. He better have good insurance.
The owners are using the lockout as leverage because they believe they can outwait the players like they did last time. They can make up their short-term losses over the long run. The players, who have only so much time to make so much money, cannot.
"The owners own the ranch and allow the players to eat there," said Detroit Red Wings senior vice-president Jimmy Devellano, in a rare (probably too) candid interview in the Island Sports News. "That's the way it's always been and the way it will be forever, and the owners simply aren't going to let a union push them around. It's not going to happen."
Well, the players simply aren't going to let the league push them around anymore, either.
Somewhere, former NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow must be watching this and saying, "Told you so." He told the players never to accept a salary cap. He told them this would happen if they did, that the owners would keep coming back for more.
But the players accepted a salary cap, plus a 24-percent rollback, and as well as they did the past seven seasons, they feel they didn't do nearly as well as they would have done in a free market. And now, sure enough, the owners are back for more.
"I sat in the room, and I heard for one year how they wanted to work together to partner and grow the game and everything would be great and that the players should trust the owners and the National Hockey League," said Pulver, who opposed the salary cap.
"In 2004, the players were sold really, really hard on partnership, growing the game together, trust, trust in the owners, and that was one of the turning points of the lockout, where a certain group of players and agents and some NHLPA staff really believed hard and said, 'OK, all right. We'll do it.' And the game grew exponentially, and the popularity grew exponentially … And now the owners don't want them to share as much, and it doesn't make sense."
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Fehr has not attacked the salary cap, despite his well-known objection to it. The players have stayed within the current system. They made what they felt was a fair first offer, unlike the owners' opening wish list, which is why they haven't budged much. They offered to limit their salary growth, potentially giving up hundreds of millions of dollars. They feel their proposal addresses the real problem – the huge disparity in revenues from market to market – by increasing revenue sharing more than the league's proposal and changing the way it is distributed.
And to them, that's far enough for now. They worry that the owners interpreted their first proposal as a sign of weakness instead of as an effort to make a deal, and they worry that if they make further concessions, the owners will pocket them and keep pressing.
If Fehr is annoying the owners, well, they players hired him to fight for them, not to make friends. If they are cattle, he is their bull with big horns. He has rebuilt a broken organization just in time, educating the membership on everything from the basics of how a union is supposed to work, to how a collective bargaining agreement affects their lives, to what the immediate issues are. Frankly, they feel they deserve first-class treatment because they are first-class talents the owners can't find anywhere else. If they are pieces of meat, they are Kobe beef.
The players know they have already lost – that it is just a matter of how much they will lose at this point. They know the owners have the leverage of the lockout. They know they might give up money that they'll never get back. They know they are taking a risk if they play in Europe. They know they broke last time.
But they insist they are more united and informed than they were last time – partly because of last time, thanks to their experience, thanks to Fehr – and they feel if they give in again that the owners will just come back again.
"The players are now looking for fairness and reasonableness more than anything else," Pulver said. "It comes down to the level of fairness and respect, really, and holding together as a group."
It might be a while.
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