The National Hockey League has extended this season's lockout for far too long.
Sadly, the owners, or at least NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, do not appear to be in any hurry to put a deal together. Instead, they would rather watch another season be wasted while irreversible damage is being done to the league.
It is not difficult to think that the league could knock itself out of being one of the “Big Four” sports. The owners' pride and egos like to believe that such a thing cannot happen, but history tells us otherwise. There was a time in the United States when boxing and horse racing were premier sporting events and baseball used to be king. And in the last couple of years, NASCAR has been starting to press the NHL for that fourth spot.
While baseball has maintained its “Big Four” standing, it has been passed by the NFL as the top sport. Horse racing is down to a once a year must-see event in Kentucky unless there is a Triple Crown threat. Boxing has been passed by MMA and NASCAR seems to be a passing fad.
All of this shows that the NHL cannot assume it will always be of top four status.
Playing Russian roulette with the league's future is beyond stupid. This league needs positive movement, it needs growth and it greatly needs stability.
The NHL has already cancelled over two months' worth of games. The Winter Classic, which was going to be the biggest yet, was also cancelled. This Classic was going to break records and would have been a tremendous step for the league.
The plan was to have two of the richest and most passionate hockey cities in the NHL battle it out in this year’s Classic as Toronto and Detroit were the teams selected. This was also going to be first time a Canadian team was invited to the event. By holding the game at the University of Michigan’s football stadium, they were expecting to beat attendance records as well.
This year’s event was so large that it was going to be held in two locations. The NHL game would be in Ann Arbor at the football stadium. The alumni games, minor league games, open skates and other events would be held in Detroit at Comerica Park.
Such an event would have been nothing but good for league. Two marquee franchises in one of the few cities that truly cares about hockey would have been such a positive.
Instead, it is just one more instance of a league that is slowly killing itself.
The loss of yet another season appears imminent. After several days of talks, it was announced that the sides would take a two-week break.
But at this point, they should already already have their plan of action worked out. Taking a day or two if needed to regroup in order to continue progress is fine, but two whole weeks is unacceptable.
To be honest, the entire ordeal has been a sham. The league never intended to have a Winter Classic this year, and really never thought that there would be a season.
In most labor cases, the blame can be spread among both sides. In this instance, though, the owners hold a lion’s share of the blame.
It was only a few, short years ago that we went through this and ended up losing an entire hockey season. Now, we will see it happen again this year.
It’s very simple: The owners are unable to control themselves. Now, they demand that the players do it for them.
The owners wanted a salary cap. They got it, and rightly so.
But rather than live under it, they immediately started to find ways to cheat the system. The league office should have stepped in and nullified those deals. While in a very few cases the league office did just that, it was not enough to stop the flow of bad contracts.
The Minnesota Wild were claiming to be poor earlier this year, then months later found $196 million to pay Zach Parise and Ryan Suter for the next forever. The ink on the contracts was not even dry yet when Wild owner Craig Leopold started to complain about the types of contracts that HE JUST OFFERED!
The league runs the Phoenix Coyotes, which in this past offseason way overpaid for the team's aging star, Shane Doan. Now in CBA negotiations, they, too, started complaining about the same deal.
If they cannot control themselves, then why should the players have to babysit their bosses?
Now, obviously there needs to be some type of salary cap, and a limit on contract years also seems reasonable. But it is amazing how the NHL, along with MLB and the NBA, seems to stumble around the idea about how to work a salary cap.
Yet the perfect example is right in front of them.
The NFL has a cap and knows how to prosper with it. Revenue sharing, prosperous teams, huge TV deals and plenty of fans prove that their system works.
However, the other leagues stumble across short-term greed and stupidity instead of looking for long-term profit and growth, with the NHL being the leader of the pack.
Now, as to how to fix it?
In order to get the puck moving again, some radical ideas need to be implemented. Basically, the NHL needs to reinvent itself.
Here is my proposal:
No more than six-year deals should be made. The money for the contract should be spread equally across the entire length of the deal. There should be no more contracts where there is a $7 million cap hit in year one, but by the eighteenth year it's down to $10 and a Happy Meal.
$50 million, firm. Yeah I know it’s a huge drop from where it currently is, but in order to get this going, we need a major fix. The owners need cost certainty. Straight salary payments are a major expense; lowering the cap will help to fix that, and will also take the excuse away from the owners.
Sign the deal this week; then games will start no later than December 10. In the meantime, every player that is not on his original deal is a free agent. Yes, it will create mass hysteria—and I admit that I love that.
To be honest, most players will likely re-sign with the team they are currently playing for, but there will definitely be some movement.
This solution would be preferable than a massive pay cut like last time, which only solved part of the problem. Under my plan, teams would be able to get contracts that fit under the new terms right away. Players would be able to make deals and play under the new contract at the same time. This allows struggling teams to get their costs under control and have a chance to be competitive all at once.
If any new deal is not done in a similar manner to the one which I have proposed, then it would take years to fully implement as many players have some very long-term contracts.
Model it after the NFL, where teams share a portion of the money with each other. If only 10 teams are strong enough to survive, then you really do not have a league. The “haves” of the league need to share with the “have-nots”.
The current system is so messed up that I would need another 50 pages to describe it. Make it simple. All teams get an equal share.
The United States, in its entirety, is not a hockey market. It was nice to try to get Phoenix and Florida involved, but certain areas are just not making it. There is no issue with trying to expand to new areas, just realize when it is time to give up. Seattle, Kansas City, Hamilton, Heck, just about any place in Canada would be willing to have a team. The lower salary cap would make it more affordable for smaller cities.
The players' share: In this deal, the players would get less money, fewer years and quite honestly less everything. There is no reason for them to sign it. This is where the owners need to give back. You can have your big arenas, but without HIGH QUALITY players on the ice, they will remain empty.
Give the players a large cut of the profits and count everything as part of it. 60% should be the minimum; ideally, the 65 percent range should be used.
It is pretty simple math at this point. Do the owners want to make 35-40% of something, or 100% of nothing?
They can look at this decreasing each year as the salary cap increases. Neither should be done in huge steps, just make gradual moves over the life of the contract.
Again, the players have given quite a bit under this plan; it is time to give them a little something. While Gary Bettman has not been all bad, he has stood watch over three lockouts that have cost the league games.
In an effort to put the stigma of the lockout era behind the league, it is time to move on without him. It would also help players and fans get over the ugliness of another lockout.
At this point, there is no perfect plan. But this would at least get the game going again. Owners would have more cost certainty under this plan while allowing players to still make money. It also would help teams that are struggling while exploring new potential markets.
As soon as a deal is signed, both sides will need to make amends with the most important people of all: the fans. Without the fans, those salaries do not get paid and those arenas will not be full.
They will need to work together in order to make fans believe in this league again. It is time to get a deal done.
PJ Sapienza is a featured columnist covering the Detroit Red Wings as well as many other sports.
You can follow him on Twitter.
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