NHL Drawing Line In Sand Moves Parties Closer To A Deal

http://tsn.ca/nhl/news_story.asp?ID=108914&hubName=nhl

The NHL today announced that commissioner, Gary Bettman, would meet with the 30 teams likely to discuss the end of the 2004-05 season on January 14, 2005. This announcement comes as the NHL has been publicly reluctant to mention at what point the season would be lost.

In the 1994 labor dispute, a deal was struck on January 11th and a 44 game season was salvaged. This move by the NHL is an important one towards cranking up the pressure on the NHLPA to give into the league’s “cost certainty”. While many players say they will never accept a “cap” there are other groups of players who can’t be too happy with the direction their union leader is taking them. High priced players like John LeClair have most of $18,000,000 to lose on the last two years of a four year deal. Alexi Yashin has it even worse cnsidering how long his current contract is. And Bobby Holik, who seems to always have a soundbite about how players are worth every penny of their worth, will lose a good part of his $8,000,000 per year deal in a new CBA.

Its hard to feel bad for the big ticket players who are so loaded with cash that their lives aren’t impacted all that much by the lockout. Younger players who are just making their way in the NHL are hardest hit by the lockout. In a cap-based system, these up-and-coming players still have a lot of room to make millions upon million of dollars per year more than they make now. What they need to prove their worth is playing time and that is exactly what their union leader is not getting them by refusing to accept a finical system like the ones that run far more successful leagues like the NFL and NBA.

I predict the lockout will end and there will be a 40 to 44 game season. The stakes are far too high for the players who need to be clinging on to the old-school contracts that they have with their current teams. Their agents are assuredly informing them that the union will be broken eventually (as it happens in every labor dispute that goes this long) and that their contracts will be worthless in the new, low-cap league. Owners have a similar problem. Small market teams are already worth very little (less than the 50 million dollars the NHL wants for a new franchise) and will be worth less after a year off. BIG market teams like Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, Toronto and others will go from being worth upwards of $300,000,000 to $125,000,000 or less by the drop of the puck next year. And in the event that Gary Bettman’s changes to the game don’t work to drive TV ratings in the US OR fans are too bitter to get back to going to the games 44+ times per year – the game is in huge trouble.

Ironically, the two side aren’t too far apart (despite some reports) in terms of numbers. It is semantics that they are basically fighting over. Is a luxury tax at $40,000,000 that is dollar for dollar not a cap? I know that isn’t exactly what the players are offering now but they might when push comes to shove. And for that matter why not go for a $47,500,000 cap with a franchise player or two per team and room for some bonuses? Would that be so harsh for the players? Would they be starving? Hardly. The owners want their cap and they are going to get it now or they will get it the hard way. They players better understand how serious they are because their is now way for them not to lose. Note: average salaries in Europe are about $500,000 per year USD. Hardly the $1,833,000 average in the NHL – even with a 24 percent rollback.

As Christmas is upon us, crunch time has come for the NHL and the NHLPA. The players are mostly in control of what happens in the end. They are fighting a battle based in the kind of greed and lust for money that got the league in the trouble they are in now. I don’t blame the owners from trying to win even if they can’t be trusted with a budget when tempted with the idea of taking their team to the playoffs for a chance at Lord Stanley’s glory. I blame the agents and union for allowing the blackmail that goes on in player negotiations.

The NHL and the NHLPA are the shepards of the game of hockey at its highest level. They have responsibilities to keep it healthy and exciting for generations of players, owners and fans. In this time of reflection at the holiday season I wish for Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow to think long and hard about the joy that they are stealing from the people who allow them to be millionaires thanks to talented me playing a child’s game. I would suggest that ‘Tis the season for more than material gain. Get a deal done. Drop the puck and get this party rolling before you ruin it forever.

Merry Christmas to hockey fans (not excluding Leafs and Rangers fans either)

Jerry (about to be freezing his sorry California Ass off in Philly) Del Colliano