"One of the reasons we had to go through a difficult period through the work stoppage is because we didn't have a system that worked and it was affecting our franchises' health and what the game looked like on the ice. So, by creating a partnership with the players, by having a salary cap, we now have a system that works for everybody -- but most importantly for our fans." -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, 2008
"We are not prepared to play another year under the current system." -- NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, 2012
It's easy to see why the NHL is losing the PR battle in the ongoing NHL CBA negotiations, although it's becoming more and more apparent that the NHL doesn't really care what the fans and media think. They want to the system changed because it is apparently broken beyond repair, once again, and because hockey fans returned en masse after a lost season seven years ago the league is confident once again that a lockout won't affect the overall status of the NHL moving forward, especially when it comes to fan response.
"We recovered well last time because we have the world's greatest fans," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week, implying that the league is not worried about a lockout because the fans not only flocked back to the league, the NHL has grown exponentially during that time. Many feel that Bettman's statements, while inevitably true, were downright insulting and arrogant as it's becoming more and more clear that the NHL is not concerned about giving fans what they want -- hockey -- so much as they are concerned with keeping as much possible money for themselves just seven years after completely changing the system in their favor once more.
Yet as NHL fans bemoan the possibility of another lost season, there is still room for hope and optimism.
All of this has many worried about the possibility of another lost season. With just 20 days remaining until the current CBA expires, there is much fretting over the continued statements of the NHL and the NHLPA attempting to cross a "wide gap" in the current negotiations that are directly tied to widely varied philosophical beliefs when it comes to the NHL's revenue sharing and how much should come from the players.
The NHL wants the players to once more take a major cut on salaries, claiming that the league cannot possibly continue with the current system and salaries.
The NHLPA has stated it is willing to take a cut on salaries but only if the owners agree to redefine Hockey Related Revenue and to change the revenue sharing policy between teams.
Forget all of the other issues in this case; this is where the CBA battle is going to be lost or won.
The irony here, that every person aware of the labor dispute has caught onto, is the fact that the owners are essentially telling the players that they cannot afford the salaries they are willfully handing out to the players, and that the CBA they forced onto the NHLPA seven years ago -- which was apparently so incredible just four years ago -- is no longer good enough.
While it's perfectly within their rights to do so, seeing teams continue to hand out lengthy and expensive contracts (Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Shea Weber) while crying poverty in relation to player salaries will do nothing but continue to sway the court of public opinion in favor of the players and the NHLPA. Of course, the NHL doesn't care much about public opinion, especially now, and they made it known with the commissioner's statements last week and with their hard stance that a lockout will happen on Sept. 15 because the current system is suddenly irrevocably broken.
What's interesting here is just how much has changed since 2004-05 and why those changes should encourage fans more than discourage fans. After Bettman's comments last week about the wide gap in philosophies tied to revenue and how the fans are so great they can deal with another lost season, many felt a lockout was inevitable. While that's certainly true, the length of lockout should be much, much shorter than what was experienced during the disaster of 2004-05.
Adrian Dater has a great article at SI.com, running down the similarities and differences between the last labor dispute and this one. While there are some concerning similarities, it's clear that the best advantage the players and the fans have is that the NHLPA's hopes rest on one man's shoulders: Donald Fehr.
When Fehr was hired by the NHLPA in 2010 he was almost instantly demonized by fans because of his ties to the MLB player's strike in 1994. Just a few short years later, however, Fehr has solidly won the PR battle and more importantly -- he has not allowed negotiations with the NHLPA to degrade to the point of animosity and discontent that doomed the CBA negotiations just seven years back.
In 2004, Bob Goodenow was the NHPA Executive Director and was firmly against a hard salary cap. As the threat of a lockout -- and eventually a lost season -- loomed, players began to be divided on the stance of the cap and suddenly the NHLPA wasn't arguing with just the league, they were arguing amongst themselves. Ted Saskin apparently went behind the back of Goodenow when agreeing to a hard cap with NHL VP Bill Daly, a move that further divided the players and created all manners of in-fighting that plagued further negotiations.
The NHL became a vicious bird of prey and instantly took advantage of the wounded animal that was the NHLPA.
This time, the NHL is attempting to do the same with the NHLPA -- to force major cutbacks once again while refusing to budge on internal revenue sharing. The NHL is citing the fact that the NFL and NBA both have 50/50 revenue sharing, a point that the league constantly brings up in public discussion, while ignoring the fact that the NFL and NBA both employ significant revenue sharing between teams: 80 percent in the NFL, compared to just 15 percent in the NHL.
One thing that should be noted: the NHL does not have the advantage of players that are in desperate need of starting the season on time. While the league has stated they are willing to outlast the NHLPA, the players have an 8 percent escrow check headed their way in October and funds from the "war chest" should once again be able to help players "pay the bills."
More importantly, the though that the NHL can survive without the NBC television deal for this season might be true, but it's also shortsighted. While NBC will still pay the league $200 million for a lost season, such a move would add one year to the end of the agreement -- a year that NBC will not have to pay for.
With Donald Fehr, the players are presenting a united front both publicly and in negotiations. While the two sides both agree that a wide margin exists in the philosophies of the financial details of where the league should head, there have been no reports of the type of bitter and angry negotiating that doomed the season in 2004-05. In fact, the NHLPA has taken a stance of compromise -- although there are certainly some outrageous points on their proposal as well.
The NHL and the NHLPA are set to meet for a week of discussions and negotiations beginning on Monday. This is the week where we'll find out just how serious the threat of a lengthy lockout truly is. Fehr and Bettman met on Thursday last week before that day's meetings were canceled; no one knows exactly how detrimental or positive those meetings truly were and we likely won't until we start hearing from both sides on how far the NHL and NHLPA are willing to compromise on the major issues of the current deal.
Whether or not the owners are the "bad guys" in all of this is irrelevant. Hockey does have some of the best fans in the world and it's unfortunate that Bettman is willing to throw that fact right back in their faces, but what is clear is that the landscape surrounding these current negotiations are much different than seven and eight years ago -- especially when it comes to how united the players are in the talks under Donald Fehr.