NHL Lockout: Placing the Blame on Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman Is Shortsighted

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NHL Lockout: Placing the Blame on Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman Is Shortsighted

As the clock ticks toward another NHL lockout, there are a lot of fingers being pointed at who will ultimately be responsible if there is a lockout when the current collective bargaining agreement expires at 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, September 15. Some say NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is to blame, while others will say that NHLPA head Donald Fehr will be the prime culprit. The truth is, neither of those two will be to blame.

Fehr and Bettman are mere figureheads, serving at the pleasure of the groups they represent. Sure, they are both handsomely compensated for those roles, but their direction comes from the players in the case of Fehr and the owners in the case of Bettman. So, blaming them for the lockout is akin to blaming the GEICO gecko if your insurance rates go up. It’s misplaced anger.

Anyway, lost in all this finger pointing and blame throwing is the simple fact that these two are not engaged in anything more than a contract negotiation. People are getting hung up on dollar figures here, and they shouldn’t be. In the most simple terms, yes, this is a case of millionaires arguing with billionaires about insane amounts of money, but the reality is that it’s not that simple. 

Every contract that is negotiated sets up the terms for the next contract that is negotiated and on and on. If one side stumbles and gives up more than they should without receiving something in return that side will potentially forever be on the losing side in negotiations, and that is where Fehr and the players are at right now.

The last contract saw the players give up 24 percent of their salaries and agree to a salary cap, two huge concessions that made the owners, at least at the time of that negotiation, the clear winners in the battle. This time the owners don’t see it that way, and they think they are paying the players too much of the hockey-related revenue. They want to see that number significantly reduced from the 57 percent it stands at today.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The simple view would be to say the players are making millions playing a game that many would gladly play for a fraction of what the current players are making, so taking a reduction in the percentage of the hockey-related revenue that heads their way should be no big deal.

The reality is that the players and owners negotiated that 57 percent, and for the owners to come back and say they want to reduce it below 50 percent is a non-starter in the eyes of the NHLPA, and rightfully so. The players gave up a lot in the last CBA, and if they sign off on what the NHL is offering right now, you can bet that when the time comes to sit down at the table again the NHL is going to be looking to get even more back from the NHLPA and the NHLPA will be bargaining from a position of weakness; a recipe for future disaster.

Fehr and the players are taking the long view this time. They will give up some of the revenue, there’s no doubt about it, but it’s doubtful that they will give up more than seven percent. That amount will put them right in line with the NFL and NBA, and it will not cripple them for the next time they go to the table. 

This deal is about the next five years, no doubt about that, but it is also about the 10-plus years to follow when the next contracts are worked through. People need to understand that. Don’t get hung up on numbers. 

Look at it this way, if you were making $10 per hour last time you negotiated a contract and you agreed to reduce that to $7.60 per hour in the first year of your new contract, would you be happy if five years later the ownership of your company said, "you know what, we still think we’re paying you guys too much"?

No, you wouldn’t; so why should the NHLPA agree to do that?

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