The Kontinental Hockey League has released a statement on its official website reporting that the league has come to a deal with ESPN, America’s sports broadcasting giant, which will allow ESPN to air certain KHL games on its online ESPN3 channel.
ESPN was once the home of NHL hockey, but the relationship between the television network and North America’s biggest hockey league ended after the NHL lost the entire 2004-05 season to a work stoppage.
The league is currently belabored by a discouragingly similar lockout that has canceled all preseason games and seems poised to cut into chunks of the regular season.
The labor issues being discussed are vast, but many of them stem from the owners’ collective perspective that less money should come out of their own pockets to keep the players happy and the league’s struggling teams afloat. The NHLPA, having sacrificed 24% of their salaries in 2005 to reach an agreement after a year of being locked out, has no intention of reinforcing the notion that owners can simply lock the players out until their demands are met.
However, until this ESPN-KHL deal was reached, the players’ true leverage seemed to be nil.
The deal is not a dramatic alteration of power in the NHL. It will not immediately end the lockout, nor will it immediately take money from the pockets of the owners.
But in a small way, it takes just a little bit of their power.
In an article published on Bleacher Report last month, I explored the possibility that the only way NHL owners would have to be less greedy and stubborn when negotiating collective bargaining agreements would be to have another professional hockey league become a major competitor for hockey talent, sponsorship and television deals.
At the moment, the NHL is the choice destination for hockey’s biggest stars and the only top-tier league that attracts national attention in the U.S. and Canada. As a result, players in the NHL make more money than they would elsewhere, but the owners simultaneously see the biggest threat to their wallets as being the players within the league, not competing leagues around the globe.
The ESPN-KHL deal is a small step toward an expanded influence of KHL hockey on the NHL’s fan territory. Interested fans will be allowed to stream games beginning tomorrow. If exposure builds from there, pockets of fans could conceivably become invested in European hockey, much the way soccer fans in the United States are quickly getting more exposure and involvement with UEFA clubs and leagues.
The owners’ monopoly on hockey in North America would be threatened, and the players would have the leverage they need to ensure they won’t be taken to the cleaners every time a CBA expires.
The current deal itself is too insignificant to make an immediate impact on the lockout, though it will be a relief for fans to be able to watch hockey played at its highest level. But the deal could be the first step in an important journey toward more stability in the NHL’s abysmal labor history.
And for those fans who cannot bear the thought of missing out on the likes of Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Alex Ovechkin at the start of the season, the deal will provide your hockey fix.
Dan Kelley has been a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist since 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @dxkelley