To paraphrase former president Ronald Reagan, here they go again.
In this case, “they” would be the NHL owners and their take-no-prisoners commissioner, Gary Bettman, as well as the league’s players. The two groups are apparently bent on shutting down their sport this weekend for the third time since 1994.
The NHL lost an entire season in 2004-05, the year Alex Ovechkin should have come into the league as a 19-year-old rookie. The owners locked the players out back then because they insisted that the financial model for the league simply didn’t work. They insisted on a salary cap — and got it. They demanded a rollback in pay — and got it. For all intents and purposes, the players caved.
Regardless of the tactics employed to get the players’ concessions, the new system worked. In the seven years since the lockout, revenues for the league have gone up by more than 50 percent, from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion annually. TV ratings, a huge problem, have improved measurably, and the league signed a new contract with NBC that has given it wider exposure than ever before. The league launched the Winter Classic, which has been a boon to hockey’s popularity.
Players also benefited. Even with a hard cap, salaries have skyrocketed and the fact that there is also a salary floor has helped non-stars make more money, too.
The owners’ response to all of this when it was time to sit down at the bargaining table was direct: Not good enough — we need more. Their initial offer would have cut player compensation by 24 percent. They also added that if the players didn’t make a deal by the time the contract expired— Saturday at midnight — they would lock them out of training camps, which are scheduled to open next week.
The two sides have since traded offers, but the bottom line remains the bottom line: The NHL wants more and it wants the players to accept less — again. The players, led by former baseball union chief Donald Fehr, are willing to accept some cuts — but not the cuts the owners want. And so, there is a good chance that hockey fans — arguably the most loyal fans in sports — will face another fall without hockey.
The issue appears to be the wide gulf between the have and have-not franchises. The Minnesota Wild signed two players, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, to long-term contracts this summer worth almost $100 million each. Having lost Suter, the Nashville Predators felt they had no choice but to match the $110 million contract that the Philadelphia Flyers offered to their other free agent star, Shea Weber. The New York Rangers happily took high-priced, high-scoring winger Rick Nash off the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets at a bargain price: about $47 million for the next six years.
The Capitals are far from hurting. Almost five years ago, Ted Leonsis signed Ovechkin to a 13-year contract worth $124 million. Even though the Caps haven’t made it past the conference semifinals since Ovechkin’s arrival, they have played to sold-out buildings virtually every night for the past four seasons.
The problem seems to be that the flush owners don’t want to finance the owners who aren’t as flush. Instead, they have assigned Bettman to make a deal that will relieve the financial pressures being felt in some markets where contracts like those signed this summer by Parise, Suter and Weber can’t possibly happen and teams keep their payrolls right at the salary floor.
In return for giving in on the salary cap, the owners gave the players 57 percent of hockey-related revenue during the last contract. They now want that number to drop to less than 50 percent. In truth, an even split is probably the fairest place to end up and is probably where the two sides will come to when they sign a deal.
The question then is, when will there be a deal? The regular season is scheduled to start Oct. 11. If it begins late, players start to miss paychecks and owners lose revenue from games not played. This isn’t like seven years ago when Bettman insisted that many franchises were better off financially not playing than playing.
As always, the owners have more money than the players, so they can probably dig in a little deeper and longer. But the NHL does not want the Winter Classic, which is scheduled for Michigan Stadium on New Year’s Day between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, affected by a work stoppage. In fact, it doesn’t want to lose the four weeks of HBO’s “24/7” leading up to the Classic, either, because that series brings a lot of attention to the sport among non-hockey fans.
That probably means that the owners’ unspoken drop-dead date is around Thanksgiving. If a deal isn’t done by then, the owners will start to squirm. Their hope, no doubt, is that the players start to squirm much sooner than that.
What’s worth remembering is that this is not Fehr’s first rodeo. He ran the baseball union during numerous work stoppages, including the strike of 1994-95, when the owners cancelled a World Series and actually began spring training with replacement players.
What is encouraging is that there’s been some progress on both sides in the last few weeks. In fact, if the two sides really want to make a deal, getting in a room nonstop for a couple of days could and should do it. The question is whether each is willing to be flexible enough to get to the finish line.
And then there’s one other question: Do the two sides understand how sick and tired all fans, even hockey fans, are of hearing millionaires bickering with billionaires? The answer to that question will come in the next 48 hours. Don’t hold your breath that they’ll get it right.