We’re two weeks into the NHL lockout but the frustration level appears rising.
The first negotiation session in a fortnight was held this past Friday, but the core, substantive issue remains as distant as chasing a meteor in space. The fact the NHL gathered revenues of $3.2 billion last year and signed a $2 billion television deal with NBC would indicate the league is healthy and stable.
Not so, say players and if a quick observation around the Phoenix Coyotes remains any indication, the sides could use a few anger management sessions.
Several Coyotes took batting practice in Chase Field prior the Diamondbacks-Cubs game Saturday afternoon, and while hitting a baseball appears one way to exorcize demons currently surrounding negotiations, the players appear anxious to lay blame right at NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s doorstep.
“It’s Bettman, (deputy commission Bill) Daly and about five owners in their pocket which are the key to getting a deal done,” said Jason LaBarbera, the Coyotes player representative. “It’s kind of like an ‘old boys club,’ but I’m optimistic. There’s too much at risk for this to go on for a long time.”
The negotiating team of Donald and Steven Fehr, representing the players, and the league met Saturday, the second straight day the sides engaged in discussion. While the substance discussed was on peripheral issues, the core economic issue of revenue appears to be tabled.
In the recently expired agreement, the players received 57 percent of hockey-related revenue. The league wants to pare that down to 50 percent, perhaps under, and that has players puzzled.
“Here’s a league which said it lost money but refuses to document this,” LaBarbera said. “It always seems to come down to money and a trust factor. At this point, I find it hard to trust the other side because we have seen great growth in the game over the past few years.”
As in past labor discussions, this is essentially about the rich teams not wanting to be equal partners, and an economic imbalance among member clubs. The NHL remains essentially top-heavy in teams which make money and the majority of teams which lose money.
Forbes Magazine estimates three teams made a profit in the last year of available numbers, the 2010-11 season. Forbes said the Leafs, Canadiens and Rangers had an operating profit of $171 million combined. The remaining 27 teams lost a collective $44 million.
“Teams need to share with other teams,” said Phoenix captain Shane Doan. “We play half our games in other cities and should share revenues. For me, this is a question of sharing.”
For players, the puzzling issue remains the growth and popularity of hockey. The recent $2 billion television deal between the NHL and NBC, players point out, is a principal example of the game’s dynamics. Players also point to the Winter Classic as a catalyst for ratings.
“Don’t forget the HBO series on the two teams leading up the Winter Classic,” LaBarbera offered. “That was very popular, and had a great ratings.”
Both Doan and LaBarbera discount the notion that this January’s Classic, featuring the Leafs and Red Wings at 105,000 seat Michigan Stadium on the Ann Arbor campus, is the carrot which will act as the vehicle for resolution. If this game is not played, the league stands to lose television revenues from both the United States and Canadian markets as well as substantial fan and corporate reaction.
The lockout is the fourth in the Bettman regime, and all parties hope and trust this episode does not exceed the length of the previous experience. That lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Right now, it’s tough sitting around,” said Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith. “I wasn’t around for the last lockout and holding my time playing golf and skating with a few guys. He had a great year last season, and we all want to get it on for another great year.”
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.