Gary Bettman

Not A Foregone Conclusion

There’s only 5 days, 13 hours, 7 minutes and 33 seconds left until the collective bargaining agreement between the National Hockey League and the Player’s Association expires.  Whether there’s be a new agreement in place at 12:01am of September 16th, 2004 is anyone’s guess at this point…and I do mean anyone’s.  The war of words in the press, that has heated up over the past few days is nothing more than a show put on for those of us who are still around to observe it.  The real dealing is still going on behind closed doors, far from prying eyes.

Certainly there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that there will indeed be a lock out by the owners, teams have laid off much of their staff, cancelled or postponed training camps, and are even refusing group bookings for tickets in some cases.  And yet, there is still some room for optimism and the planned 2004-05 season.

That’s not to say that these negotiations are a simple process…

On the one side you have the Gary Bettman, league commissioner (a position that was created for him in 1992), who could very well have his job on the line.  While league revenues have increased greatly under his watch, television contract revenue and coverage has begun regressing and there is an underlying dissatisfaction with the state of the game.  Facing off against him is Bob Goodenow, the head of the NHL Players Association and another who may have his job on the line.  Both men will want to look like winners coming out of these negotiations, and unfortunately for us they have set up conditions that make it almost impossible for them both to be.

Both are seasoned negotiators and will be looking to use every tool at their disposal, whether it be the media, audits of team finances or public surveys, to put additional pressure on their opponent to come up with a deal.

The secret to success will be compromise…

If you look past the spin at what both sides want, there still remains some common ground.  The league wants to control the escalation of salaries of free agents, and to reign in the ten or so clubs who are traditionally big bidders come July 1st.  In so doing they will indirectly affect the cost of resigning players and arbitration rulings (though it appears that arbitration will be scrapped as it now exists).  In addition a lower cap on entry level contracts will provide a more reasonable starting point for contracts.  The players by contrast want to maintain market conditions that allow their salaries to continue to rise, and to be honest…if it was me I’d want the same thing.

The compromise is to have a little bit of both.  The luxury tax (if implemented correctly) will be a deterrent for free-spending owners, but it will have to be set at a much lower level than the all but worthless cap implemented in Major League Baseball.  Rather than shooting for the top end, the tax will likely have to target around $40 million…which is around about the average for the league as it stands now.  The number also approximately half way between the two proposals that have been put forward to date; a $30 million cap by the owners and a $50 million luxury tax threshold in the latest NHLPA proposal.

This type of proposal also goes some way to addressing the issues faced by franchises such as Pittsburgh and Edmonton, who have battled a host of financial problems including currency exchange rates, poor business decisions and small markets and are looking for a way to remain competitive.  Luxury tax revenue could be redistributed to teams in some form or another to help off-set the inequities that are inherent in having an international league of 30 teams across a variety of markets.  It won’t of course address poor management (the cause of some failures to date), but it will hopefully strengthen a league that far outstrips it’s competitors in terms of failed franchises and shaky owners.

There are other important decisions to make of course, entry level contracts (the NHLPA has already indicated they’re willing to lower this), a lower unrestricted free agent age and even the length of the season.  But once you get past the two biggest issues, things become a whole lot easier.

So while the league and players association continue to use the media and impending deadline to garner as many concessions from the other side as possible, take a deep breath, cross your fingers and hope for hockey on September 16th.

Oh, and in case you were wondering there are now 5 days, 12 hours, 25 minutes and 21 seconds…20 seconds…19 seconds…

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