"Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it,"
George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense
Well hockey fans, I hope you have plans this winter—or alternate plans, I should say.
The NHL has embarked on its ritual eight-to-10-year lockout plan as part of some type of experimental fan-loyalty campaign from commissioner Gary Bettman. Every decade, give or take, the NHL decides to remove itself from the ranks of the top-four mainstream sports and set new and horrible benchmarks for labor negotiation.
As the only "major" sport to forfeit an entire season (2004-05), the National Hockey League can't seem to get out of its own way. This year's labor stoppage is even more infuriating than, and equally puzzling as, its predecessors.
With a Sept. 15, deadline established, it is stunning that so many millionaires have allowed their golden goose to starve itself again.
Since 2004-05, the NHL has grown beyond the expectations of the brokers for the previous collective bargaining agreement. In that time, the powers-that-be were also obviously asleep or comatose, because September 15, 2012, apparently caught everyone by surprise.
I would love to have optimism that there will be a season, or at least, a modified facsimile of one. I'm troubled, however, by the incompetence of the people in charge of making that happen. With major work stoppages pending in the NFL and the NBA as well the past few years, the negotiating parties were able to see the big picture and compose a deal.
Their biggest advantage: no Gary Bettman at the negotiating table.
Here are five distressing signs that we might not have an NHL season this year.
Why does it seem like the people who should care the most, seem to absolutely care the least? Who did this labor stoppage sneak up on, and how stupid does everyone look now?
I know I have written this before, but it is inconceivable to miss my child's birthday. It is on the same day every year—I'm not surprised when the day comes. It's not like 364 days, 23 hours and 59 minutes of every day are filled with so much important stuff that I can't manage to buy him a pack of cigarettes or something.
I'm kidding, of course. I don't want him to play around with matches or a lighter. For Pete's sake, he's three.
The point is this: The second the ink dried on the last collective bargaining agreement, negotiations for the next one should have gotten underway. The evolution of the business over the past eight years apparently crept up on the minds that are supposed to regulate the game we love?
How did this happen?
It blows me away to read the reports sprinkled in over the past few weeks that say things along the lines of "No formal negotiations took place today, but the two sides remain in contact."
Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr: This is your job. This is the sole purpose for your employment. Now, we have to wait and see when you two clowns can sit down again and play Let's Make a Deal.
The major issues of contention seem enormous, given the disparity between the numbers that have been thrown out to the public. The gap has closed somewhat, as legitimate negotiations have moved forward, but there isn't much good faith between either side to trumpet any optimism to the media.
Here are the main issues:
The main addition of the 2005 agreement will remain in place. Both sides would like adjustments, obviously in opposite directions. The increase in league profits has resulted in an equal percentage increase to the salary cap. The owners want that percentage fixed and/or lowered in addition to another salary rollback similar to 2004-05.
HRR is the definition of all revenue earned by a team that is used to determine salary caps. The owners proposed that certain revenue streams should not be included under the HRR umbrella, thereby reducing the percentage for the salary cap.
Maximum Contract Terms
The owners would like there to be a five-year cap on the number of years for a contract.
Players in their first three years of service are given limits on what are considered "entry-level contracts." The owners would like that to extend to five years.
Revenue Sharing (Teams)
Even though the NHL has reported record profits in the last few years, it is a top-heavy figure, with successful teams showing enormous gains while the bottom eight to 10 teams actually struggled to turn a profit.
Last season, the top three teams (Toronto, New York Rangers and Montreal) earned more than the rest of the league combined. Market size is just one of the variables considered in a shared-revenue system. The current system does not provide enough relief for the teams struggling in the red.
This appears to be the largest sticking point in the negotiations.
There was $3.3 billion earned by the league this past season, 57 percent of which went to the players union. As part of the previous agreement, the players received the majority of the profits and agreed to an immediate 24 percent rollback on their contracts.
The unforeseen profits of the league's growth have made the owners reconsider that number. They would like that piece of the profit to be closer to the 47 to 49 percent range.
Gary Bettman does not care about the fans. Gary Bettman doesn't care about the players. I'll stop short of saying that Bettman doesn't care about hockey, but I see very little evidence that he does.
Bettman is payed by the owners to represent their best interests and has already pulled the plug on one season. What is stopping him from doing it again? Absolutely nothing.
Bettman's arrogance stems from the fact that he has been down this road before.
He has worn the villain's hat (unfairly or not) and doesn't care about being booed at games or trophy presentations. He will say to anyone who will listen that the fans came back after the previous lockout, and so, they will return again. Never mind the progress made by the NHL in the mainstream markets, it can get there again.
He may be right, but he's setting the league back another five years.
Bettman will gladly discuss his triumphs as league commissioner and how he has improved the game of hockey. In reality, he has created an increasingly contentious relationship on both sides of the negotiation table.
His arrogant, sneering persona comes off as a parent punishing a child. Would anyone be surprised to hear him say, "This is going to hurt me as much as it hurts you?" He has taken his puck and locked the rink on his way out.
How this grows the sport is a question I would like him to answer.
Now folks, it's popular opinion to hate "the Man" and think that the oppressive billionaires are keeping our hero—the modest and humble hockey player—from putting on his skates.
It's not necessarily that simple. As much as we would like to think that the burden of this work stoppage is on the owners and Gary Bettman, the players' mouthpiece, Donald Fehr, has been equally stubborn. It's part of his job, too.
The NHL could have looked itself in the mirror and seen a profitable cash cow, dropping piles of gold in the fields across North America. The problem is that some piles were gold, and others were piles of...well, not gold.
The business reality of the NHL is that the profits are made by the top teams. By "top teams," I mean the top five out of 30. So, while there may be parity on the ice, there is nothing close to that balance in the NHL checkbooks around the league.
For every stupid owner agreeing to a 30-year, $600 million contract for one star, there are dozens of players trying to get their piece of the pie. Who can blame the players? If you negotiate a deal that will give you and your family financial security for life, should you really care if the guy who is signing your checks might eventually go broke?
No—why should you? As long as those checks don't bounce, the players have a finite shelf life and have to get theirs while they can.
The functional problem of that philosophy is that the NHL has to recognize that the owners need to be protected from themselves. The NHLPA has to swallow that pill, too, and realize that their money has to come from somewhere.
The employees do not run the business and need to recognize this. They are obviously the key to the profitability of said business and the face of the product. However, they need to understand their role in the business and how they can make it work more fluidly.
When you look at the photo for this slide, there is one guy who is not smiling. Do you wonder why? It's from an inferiority complex that the NHL has when it is put next to the other major sports in North America.
I'm not sure who the commissioner of the MLS is, but he could well take Gary Bettman's place the next time they assemble the four "major" sports commissioners again.
Bettman negotiates like he is the commissioner of the NFL, NBA or even the MLB. The NHL is still viewed by a large percentage of the (American) population as a fringe or niche sport. Bettman has completely overvalued and overextended the NHL in trying to keep up with the other leagues.
I picture him pulling up to some fancy country club in a rented Bugatti super car for a round of golf with Roger Goodell, David Stern and Bud Selig.
"Nice car Gary!"
"What, this old thing? Pssshh!"
Bettman needs to take a lesson from the negotiations from the other three sports if he wants to keep his job and keep hockey in the discussion of relevance. The gap between the NHL and NBA has closed to less than half a billion dollars, which is huge progress for hockey. Know your product, know your value and appreciate your fans.
We'll all come back to the rink again, Gary; hopefully, you won't be there.