A Past Best Forgotten
What a despicable image; the chains on the puck and the memory of the lost NHL season.
While most fans have tried to put the lockout that erased the 2004-05 NHL season behind them, the fact of the matter is that in two years time, another collective bargaining agreement must be ratified by both the league and the Players Association.
In the last CBA, the majority of fans were on the side of the league, seeing the value in a hard salary cap as not only a method for cost certainty for the owners, but for the fans at the ticket window as well.
"What will happen with the new system is the inflationary pressure caused by the inflation in player costs will be abated. What happens in each market will be a club-by-club decision. But I do believe the ticket situation, the pricing situation, will be improved and will be more reflective of a healthy business" Commissioner Gary Bettman told the Toronto Globe and Mail on December 2, 2004, during the height of the lockout.
Of course, the other benefit that appealed to the fans was the the near-guarantee of improved league-wide competitive balance. It seemed so obvious at the time.
No more would the New York Rangers be able to drop nine million dollars into Bobby Holik's lap while small market teams like the Edmonton Oilers basically acted as farm clubs, losing the likes of Bill Guerin, Jason Arnott, and Doug Weight to the bigger fish in the proverbial sea.
What resulted from the clear cut victory by Bettman and the league, which effectively broke the NHLPA's back, was somewhat different than either the fans or most likely the players could have imagined.
The Ramifications of "Victory"
On the positive side, rule changes opened up the scoring considerably, ending the era of plodding, clutch and grab hockey in what has been now been deemed by hockey journalists and fans alike as the "Dead Puck Era."
However, the first downside for the players is that their union has been in chaos ever since, culminating in an eight month search for a new leader after the firing of Paul Kelly that has resulted in no viable candidates.
Larry Brooks, in an article entitled "Headless Icemen Lead to the Slaughter," now available on the New York Post's website, chronicled the low points of the NHLPA's unenviable recent history, leading to an immediate conclusion that morale in the Players Association may be lower than ever at this point.
One of the more surprising failures for the NHLPA didn't come from the voiding of superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk's 17-year, 102-million-dollar deal, but the method in which it was voided. The NHL came out with guns blazing, while the Players Association thought more about the cost of attorney fees than of protecting one of their own.
Furthermore, as Brooks puts it, "Donald Fehr, once perceived as its savior, has been so disengaged during the Ilya Kovalchuk case that it is clear that the one-time omnipotent leader of the Major League Baseball union has no interest in taking a lead role with the NHLPA."
So not only is the NHLPA headless at the moment, but the one ace up their sleeve, the one man that they thought could do battle with the NHL's lead toadie and come out victorious has proven to be aloof at best and essentially disinterested overall.
Of course, most fans tend not to weep for the players. Like many others, I sided with the league in 04-05 in hopes that they would crush the Union, end the ridiculous contracts, and help restore a league-wide balance that had seemingly been lost in the years leading up to the lockout.
I believed that the players could simply use their endless stacks of money to keep them warm and at night during the long hockey layoff. Sure, the rookies and young players would suffer, but they'd eventually get their paydays.
The players that were ready to come up through the minors would have to wait a bit longer, but was any of that such a huge price to pay for the overall viability of the league itself?
But the reality, the real negative consequence that extends far beyond the NHLPA's inability to get their act together, is the fact of the matter is that the hard cap hasn't actually solved anything for the league as a whole.
There are still teams that simply refuse to spend money. Sure, every team meets the cap floor, but cost certainty didn't help the Florida Panthers become a contender.
They still shipped Roberto Luongo to Vancouver for Todd Bertuzzi, a player that was obviously past his prime. The Panthers also jettisoned franchise playmaker Olli Jokinen and franchise defenseman Jay Boumeester.
Wait a minute, wasn't having a hard cap supposed to prevent these types of loses? The whole argument was about parity, right? That was the word that Gary Bettman kept using when talking about a need for a hard cap in the NHL.
But if that's the case, then why hasn't the hard cap helped teams such as the Thrashers, the Coyotes, the Predators, and the many other spendthrift, low money, small market teams compete with big spenders like the Rangers, the Blackhawks and the Canadiens?
One Possible Reality
My working theory is that the league didn't care about parity. Sure, it was a possible (though by no means guaranteed) side effect of cost certainty, but it was by no means their primary goal.
Does anyone honestly believe that the owners would have been that concerned with helping each other become more competitive? Does that even sound remotely logical?
If I'm an owner, I want to win the Stanley Cup every year. I want the playoff revenue. I want my fan base locked in and pouring a ton of money in to my pockets. And I honestly don't care if five or more teams basically act as farm clubs. That's a few teams and a small price to pay for having my own profitable franchise.
A very small price to pay.
It's like baseball. There are clear cut haves and have-nots. The Yankees, the Red Sox, the White Sox, the Mets, the Phillies, and to a lesser extent, the Angels and the Dodgers will always have the money to stay competitive.
The Marlins, the Brewers, the Athletics, and the Twins will always have to rely on their farm systems to keep churning out high-caliber prospects just as fast as they lose their big name players to big money clubs.
Yankees third basemen Alex Rodriguez makes $33,000,000 a year. The entire Pittsburgh Pirates team makes a little over $34 million a year. The combined contracts of CC Sabathia and A-Rod are greater than the total team salaries of the bottom five team spenders in the league: the Marlins, the Rangers, the Athletics, the Padres, and the Pirates.
So if baseball can survive in this climate and do so rather well, then why not hockey? Why would owners that don't want to spend more money be inclined to pay more, and why would owners that are already successful feel the need to make fellow owners spend more?
The simple answer is that they wouldn't. They would see no logic in making owners spend more for the betterment of the league.
Thus, the low money teams get a nice cap floor that they have to meet, but overall, for most teams, the money they now have to spend isn't much more than it was before. The upside as well is that the low money owners get to look like they're keeping more of their players and that they actually care about their teams, plus they get revenue sharing.
Meanwhile, the big money teams no longer have to shell out huge money for mid-level players. The teams that can afford to spend to the cap will, more often than not, be competitive by default.
So the league basically wanted to save money and shockingly, the owners wanted to spend less than they were spending before. They framed the issue as one of parity and cost certainty while framing the players as the evil, money-grubbing rich kids who were running a small but loved sport in to the ground.
Unsurprisingly, those same rich kids buckled after a year without hockey and a year full of bad PR.
Gary Bettman's NHL Legacy
To me, the situation going in to the next round of collective bargaining agreement discussions is radically different than the last round however, because we, the fans, have seen first hand that the hard cap doesn't create parity.
In my mind, parity always existed, especially in a league where half of the teams make the playoffs. There are always surprises, just as there are always teams that don't surprise because they don't spend the money.
Teams like the Thrashers will never be competitive when they let go of the likes of Marc Savard, Marian Hossa, and Ilya Kovalchuk while getting back players such as Colby Armstrong and prospects that don't pan out.
Furthermore, we've seen what Gary Bettman can do besides bust unions, and what we've seen isn't much. In fact, it's less than nothing.
Back in the mid 90s, the NHL peaked when the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup. The NHL drew higher ratings than the NBA, they were right on the doorstep of Major League Baseball, which itself was coming back from a lockout.
Continued momentum seemed to be all but assured.
But as the decade wore on, the style of play devolved, the changes being made to the NHL were turning off old time fans, the ratings began to sag and Gary Bettman did nothing about it.
In fact, arguably the worst thing he's done to the NHL in his tenure was severing ties with self proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports; ESPN. Did anyone honestly think that an article with Gary Bettman's name in it would go without mentioning ESPN, his biggest failure, as well?
Today, the NHL finds themselves on Versus, formerly known as the Outdoor Life Network, a fourth tier cable channel that is still, to this day, the betamax to ESPN's VHS.
This is the legacy that Bettman has accrued in his tenure as NHL Commissioner: He has broken the NHLPA, he has overseen two lockouts, helped in the creation of a hard salary cap that has done nothing in the long run that both the players and owners wanted and he has relegated the NHL, one of the worst marketed brands in sports, to being a 4th tier sport on a 4th tier network that's all but ignored by ESPN and the national sports media at large.
Again, this is his legacy.
Why the Players Can Win This Time
As previously stated, there is a storm on the horizon for hockey. The next round of negotiating is two years away, but this time, I believe that the players have the upper hand.
To me, the stats are on the players side. They made ALL of the concessions last time. They folded like a cheap suit and basically gave the league carte blanche to create their vision for a better NHL.
Now the players can point to the fact that after five years, the NHL is still digging themselves out of the hole that the last lockout put them in. Having been relegated to Versus and being all but ignored by ESPN doesn't help in that effort either.
In other words, if I'm the NHLPA, I would dig in and state, in no uncertain terms, that unless the NHL fires Gary Bettman, the Players Association will strike and that they will not negotiate with the leader for a group of owners that care so much more about keeping their costs down than the health of the overall game, that they are willing to shun ESPN, the sports world and their own fans.
The league got what they wanted last time. They stuck it to the greedy players by telling fans that every team could be competitive and that the league itself would be better and healthier if the players would simply give a little.
That simply isn't the case.
The league has stumbled since their high point in the 90's because Gary Bettman is the one that wanted to expand in to the non-hockey markets, creating these sick-man teams that always finish in the bottom ten in revenue regardless of how well they perform year in and year out.
Gary Bettman is the one that wanted do away with many old traditions in hockey by Americanizing the game with more scoring, different division and conference names and several other little things that alienated a lot more fans than the NHL managed to bring in with those changes.
Of course, Gary Bettman is also the one that sought a better deal with a worse network, sacrificing public exposure for teams and players in the name of a quick buck.
The Final Word
This is an opportunity for the Players Association to appeal to the fans and paint the league's leader in a bad light, stating that he (and not the players) is what's wrong with the NHL. He is the representation of the owner's greed and the architect of the parity smokescreen that painted the players in to a corner in the last go-round of negotiations.
The Players Association must strap themselves in. They must be willing to forego a year, possibly even two or three years of paychecks if they have any desire to regain some of what they lost in 04-05 and expose the owners thinly veiled attempts to saving money while making the players look like villains.
They go after Bettman right off the bat before they even go to the negotiating table and they force the owners to make an immediate concession. The fans despise Bettman for everything he's done to the league over the last fifteen years and that alone will get the popular support on the players' side this time.
If you apply that much pressure from the beginning and it's a good way to, at worst, get the fans behind you instead of against you and at best, cut the head off the snake and put the owners on their heels going in to negotiations. Perhaps this time they can strike a deal that's more mutually beneficial, where both sides win.
Oh, and for the love of God, hire a new Commissioner that sees the wisdom of being promoted by the THE sports promotional network.
Now if they can only find a leader that's charismatic enough and capable enough to paint the league in this manner in the court of public opinion and lead them in to what already appears to be the beginning of a long and drawn out battle.