If you are a hockey fan, the term “labor dispute” must make you sick to your stomach.
The cringe-worthy phrase isn’t simply about the past, when the NHL played a shortened 1994-95 season as a result of a lockout, or the undisputed low point in the sport’s history, when the entirety of the 2004-05 season was canceled.
It isn’t simply nauseating because of the present either, as we deal with another lockout that has the potential to eliminate another full season (via ESPN).
On top of all this, the manner in which the owners and commissioner Gary Bettman use lockouts as leverage to take more and more out of the players’ pockets leaves only one harsh reality: Every time a CBA expires, the owners will lock the players out until they get their way.
And unless some unforeseen miraculous development occurs during this season’s negotiations, the players are virtually powerless to construct a deal that the owners won’t want to take a chunk of next time.
There is little the players can do because most owners have enough money to cancel entire seasons without taking a short-term financial hit that will eliminate the long-term financial benefits of a CBA that takes more money from the players.
The players have no leverage at all. The owners know that the NHL is the best place to play hockey, and anyone under contract with the NHL is subject to the terms and conditions set by the CBA for that league.
But what would happen if the players suddenly had a choice?
Pretend for a moment that you work for the only auto manufacturer in your home country. You’re extremely good at your job, but there is only one place you can exercise your skills. Barring government regulations, you are subject to the whims of the owner of the company.
He decides how much money you make, whether or not you get promotions, and how much of the profits he feels go right into his own pocket.
What if a new auto manufacturer moved into the town, or the state, or the country?
Suddenly, your owner has to worry about whether or not the terms and conditions he sets in his workplace are enough to keep talented employees around. If manufacturing plant No. 2 offers better conditions than No. 1, all the talent will presumably move to the new plant.
It’s conceivable that even salary terms that are equal or even a bit lower at plant No. 2 would be enough to draw much of the workforce away, if ownership didn’t show a history of consistently trying to take more and more of the pie.
For hockey, the Kontinental Hockey League represents the potential second manufacturing plant.
At the moment, the handful of NHLers who play in the KHL do so either as a direct result of the lockout or because they are in the twilight of their careers and choose to play out their years in Russia, either because it is their homeland or because they are not capable of competing at the NHL level anymore.
The KHL formed in 2008 and is already expanding quickly out of Russia and into Eastern and Central European countries. The league now includes one Czech and one Slovakian team.
The amount of money being given out to players can be tracked by the agreed-upon salary cap at the start of each season. Merely three years ago, the KHL salary cap was the equivalent of $18.3 million.
A press release for the 2012-13 season found on the KHL website indicates that the current salary cap will be 1.1 billion rubles, or approximately US$36 million. That is nearly a 100 percent increase in salary cap in just three years.
Whether or not this growth continues at such a significant rate remains to be seen, but the NHLPA could conceivably benefit from the success of the KHL. If players had a second viable option to play hockey at its highest level and make nearly as much money as they make in North America, fewer and fewer players would tolerate the possibility that any given CBA expiration could result in a year-long lockout.
Of course, there are many other factors to consider, and it is difficult to picture a Russian league where labor policies are more fair than those of the NHL. It would seem that few Canadians and Americans would choose to give up the opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup.
But if nothing else, a successful KHL represents leverage. The players would have options, and the owners would need to be more serious about making the NHL an appealing league to play in, not just an appealing league to watch.
The KHL could grow quite a bit between the end of the current NHL-NHLPA labor dispute and the start of the next one, which is contingent upon the length of the CBA. If Russian hockey is closer and closer to the quality and popularity of North American hockey, the owners may find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
All that money they look to take from the players could result in the growth of a rival league, thus ending the NHL’s monopoly on the highest level of hockey.
Dan Kelley has been a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist since 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @dxkelley