NHL owners, players cannot afford to realize biggest fears

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

DETROIT – For now, the doors were unlocked. Players from the past, present and future mingled in the dressing room Friday morning after an informal skate, the first of the season at Joe Louis Arena. They all hoped it would not be one of the last.

In New York, the leaders of the NHL and the NHL Players' Association were holding an informal meeting, trying to restart stalled labor negotiations a little more than a week before the Sept. 15 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement.

Here, Ted Lindsay, the Hall of Famer who played a leading role in establishing the NHLPA, sounded moderate, not militant, saying there were two sides to the story and the game should come before money.

Henrik Zetterberg, the Detroit Red Wings star who sits on the union's negotiating committee, sounded frustrated and prepared for the worst.

Nail Yakupov, the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, walked by almost unnoticed. If this were a normal year, a big storyline would be whether he will play for the Edmonton Oilers this season. This year, it's a non-story because we don't know if anyone will play for the Edmonton Oilers this season.

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The biggest fear? Well, after the last labor fight led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, that's obvious, isn't it?

"My biggest fear is that …"

Zetterberg sighed.

"I don't know," said Zetterberg, who was in the room in New York when formal negotiations broke off a week ago. "It's that they're going to lock us out for the whole year. That's something that we've been through in '04. Nothing good comes out of that – not for players, not for fans, not for teams – and it shouldn't come to that."

No, it shouldn't.

For all the doom and gloom, all the spin and posturing, there is a path to a deal if both sides compromise. The players don't need to take a pay cut off the top; the owners can get the revenue split to the 50-50 level they want. The sides can meet somewhere in the middle on revenue sharing. Really. They can.

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The NHL's last proposal was a six-year deal. In the first three years, the salary cap would be unlinked from revenues – $58 million, $60 million, $62 million. In the next three years, the cap would be linked to revenues again.

The NHLPA didn't like that. The cap was $64.3 million last season. It was set at $70.2 million this summer under the terms of the current CBA. If it goes down to $58 million this season, the players will take a significant pay cut. It won't be called a rollback, because it will come out of escrow, but it is essentially the same.

"They want us to give up a lot of concessions right away, on contracts that have already been signed," Zetterberg said. "I think if we can find a way to … We're ready to give up concessions in the future, but not on what we already have made."

Hard to blame them. So how about this?

My proposal: In the first three years, the salary cap would be unlinked from revenues and fixed in the mid-to-high $60-million range. After that, the cap would be linked to revenues again – at 50-50 right away, or in a way that phases to 50-50. If revenues continue to grow the way they have, the cap will start rising again. Both sides will make more.

The owners would share more of their revenue to help the weaker teams. They share $140 million now, and they have proposed sharing $190 million. The players say that is not nearly enough, proposing $240 million and a new way of distributing the money. But there are indications the league is willing to go further.

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Now, this wouldn't make everyone happy. The owners would prefer the players take an immediate pay cut, and the players would prefer to get 57 percent of the revenue again, at least at some point.

"I just speak for myself," Zetterberg said, "and I don't like 50-50 at all."

And yes, it's simplified – way oversimplified. The owners want to redefine hockey-related revenue, shrinking the pie out of which the players get their slice, and they have attacked contract lengths, arbitration rights and free-agency rules. The sides would have to work out those issues, too, and more.

"Easier said than done," said defenseman Niklas Kronwall, a member of the Red Wings' team negotiating committee.

Of course. But making a deal isn't necessarily about making everyone happy. It's about finding what both sides can live with. And this has to be done soon if it's going to be done – if not before Sept. 15, then not long afterward. For the players to keep what they have now, for future growth to fuel this plan, a lockout cannot damage the business too much.

The owners should not underestimate the players. Yes, they broke the union last time. But that was a disengaged, disorganized union, and look at how long it took to break it.

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"We lasted for a year," Zetterberg said, "and I think we're way more prepared this time."

The players are more engaged and organized under new executive director Don Fehr. They are receiving escrow checks Oct. 15 that should tide them over for a while. They know the owners will feel more pressure when NBC games are canceled in November and the Winter Classic is threatened in December. They also have more options than they did seven years ago: Some of them can go to Russia and play in the KHL.

"They will take on players until they probably expand the league," Zetterberg said. "If it will go to Christmas, you will see guys leave and play in Europe. So I think it would be a lot easier this time around for us to not play."

But the players should not underestimate the owners, either. Yes, they lasted for a year last time. But what did that get them? They gave up a season of salary, and for that sacrifice, they still had to swallow a salary cap and a 24-percent salary rollback. They have done well under the system since, so well that they want to keep it as is, but as the union often says, they gave up billions over the course of the agreement.

The owners always have leverage in these situations. They can afford short-term pain, because they can make up for it in the long run. Individual players can play and earn big money for only so long, and as principled as they might be, it's hard to sacrifice your career for future generations.

"No one wins on the cancellation of a season," Zetterberg said. "It took a while before we got back [after 2004-05]. But once we did, it's been growing every year. I think we get new fans every year. The last few playoffs, it's been outstanding. It would be foolish to throw that away."

Listen to Lindsay. To be clear, the 87-year-old doesn't know what's going on in negotiations. He doesn't have opinions on the specifics. But this is the godfather of the union – a man who fought for players' rights and made personal sacrifices to do it, the man who has his name on the NHLPA's most outstanding player award – and he looks at the big picture.

"There's always two sides to every story," Lindsay said. "The players have their side, the owners have their side. … I never think about money, because money wasn't a problem in our time – and still isn't a problem. It's just a case of getting people to get their mind together and get thinking and get talking. You've got to sell your game. I don't care whether you're owners or whether you're players."

Lindsay is supposed to coach in the alumni game before the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs meet in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day. It is supposed to be part of a festival of outdoor hockey at Comerica Park in downtown Detroit – youth games, college games, junior games, a minor-league game – before the main event draws a record crowd of 110,000 at Michigan Stadium in nearby Ann Arbor. What if it's wiped out?

"I would think probably they would move it to next year because it'll be a financial disaster for the city of Detroit," Lindsay said. "I guess maybe I'm old school. I guess that would be a detriment to hockey, to what they can do for a city that's trying to come back.

"Fine, selfishly, you say, 'Well, we're the hockey players. We deserve it.' Well, how much do you deserve sometimes? You have to sell your game."

Another long lockout would be a hard sell.

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