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Deal Day!
The Lying Lyers That Didn't Lie

Rick Charlton
July 13th, 2005

Will it have been worth it?

The devil will be in the details, of course, but evaluating the winners and losers of an NHL lockout lasting some 300 days, the longest interruption of a professional sport in history, will almost certainly come down to that question at some point.

For the majority of owners, it appears they lost less money by not operating than they might have done if they had thrown open their doors under the old agreement. The truth in that lies in the simple fact they DID cancel a season and most likely did so because it was uneconomic to operate into the future without some profound adjustment to the economic model they had been working under.

In turn, they now have a CBA, which appears to effectively put straight jackets on the "idiots" among them who had brought the game to the economic brink.

And make no mistake this CBA negotiation was aimed at restrictions on owners, not players as the last CBA was.

The "idiot-proofing," a phrase first coined by Brian Burke some three years ago, was considered the ultimate goal of this agreement and by and large, with linkage and a hard cap, any wiggle room for agents and players and owners to exploit has been reduced considerably and likely eliminated entirely.

Only through time will we truly see the truth or the lie of that statement but it says here that any loophole will have to be somewhat interesting and unique to say the least given the legal verbage we are likely to see in this CBA.

Contrary to the whines of critics, there is no guarantee that any owner in this agreement can make a profit or even have a neutral cash flow on their hockey franchise. Incompetence can still reign. And will. Losses could still mount. Franchises could still be endangered. Teams may still move to greener pastures.

Losing players at a younger age via a lower UFA requirement can also hurt franchises where fans like to have heroes they can identify with through the long haul. It might come to pass that cap miscalculations and terrible decisions hamper the ability of a franchise to compete for several years.

Lots of suicidal things can still happen to kill a franchise even in this new "idiot-proof" world.

All that has been achieved here is economic equilibrium, a reasonable chance the bottom two-thirds of teams can build their businesses and profit if run competently without economic pressure continually ratcheting up to unbearable levels from larger markets.

Will it have been worth it to owners to shut down an entire season?

The preference would obviously have been to negotiate a deal similar to what they are settling on today and having played the season anyway but since that wasn't possible given the economic pressures on one side and the ideological intransigence of the other, a deal that ultimately provides long term economic stability, even at the cost of a season, will have been worth it for most if not all owners if one assumes this agreement will also serve as a basis for future settlements down the road with a less militant union as a partner rather than an opponent.

This deal isn't necessarily about the next six years. It might well be about the next 20. And for that alone, for the NHL as a business entity, it might well have been worth it in spite of the coming struggles to get the customers back in their buildings. The details we have seen - all unconfirmed - appear to bring it broadly in line, if not setting a new standard, with the cost controls engaged in other successful leagues. Provisions for linkage, a hard salary cap, baseball style arbitration, escrowed salaries, reducing the influence of built-in salary accelerators, revenue sharing, etc, etc and most of all, bringing players and owners together in a common purpose, makes the expired CBA of 1994-95 look like the work of dinosaurs in comparison.

It's a triumph among the ashes for Gary Bettman, the subject of vitriol from the other side but a consistent missionary through several years for getting into the economic issues troubling the sport.

Bettman's near-major mistake in this dispute, the point where owners appeared to be ready to wage war among themselves, looked to come in the post-cancellation aftermath when he boldly stated a 2005-06 season would happen, obviously with replacement players, the latter a potential rallying point both figuratively and legally for the NHLPA side.

Within a month of Bettman backing off replacements in the face of growing owner intransigence, the NHLPA side was essentially caving in. Where would we be now if Bettman had continued to push the replacement player option? Probably not where we are today.

For players, an obstinate and ideologically driven union leadership is settling on an agreement that by and large could probably have been achieved without a single paycheque being lost, probably no 24% rollback in salaries either and, as a further pile of poo on their heads, with linkage now involved, players can expect to pay at least some of the future damages the game may have suffered.

If the fans stay away in anger, the cap number drops.

In that vein, in the early going, there is a clear winner and a clear loser even if the agreement itself will ultimately be the best for both parties in growing this business.

When Bob Goodenow was telling his constituents to be prepared for one year, two years and finally three years on the sidelines, you have to wonder if they took him seriously, particularly since they ended up folding like a cheap tent in a rain storm at midnight with these mid-summer talks, a rather stunning time to be negotiating surrender terms given there was no visible pressure point that a deadline hunter like Goodenow would typically latch onto.

The timing of this settlement is so anti-Goodenow that it has to be anti-Goodenow if you get my drift.

Some have interpreted the fold as the membership letting Goodenow down after he had warned them repeatedly what it would take to win.

Others would look at the emptiness of the threat to begin with; a complete misread of a determined opponent as well as a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic human nature inherent in every NHLPA member. Or maybe just a guy who couldn't accept losing when he was in a no-win situation. Players were always negotiating a loss. It was simply a matter of degree.

Owners typically lose these disputes in all sports simply because they are the party most often exaggerating their economic distress. They never have the moral high ground, the necessary sincerity, to begin with and when push comes to shove and the truth comes out, that its cheaper to settle for distasteful terms than it is to shut down entirely, they most often fold their cards rather than continue.

Owners most often lie and therefore owners most often lose.

This is a rare instance where it was the union, not management that lacked the fibre for the fight because they overstated their case to begin with. Opposition to linkage and a salary cap and a host of other issues just never held up when compared to the fact there would still be more profit in settling for distasteful terms than continuing to melt finite earning power in a futile dispute that might have lasted several years.

This is actually a pretty good deal for players in the long haul, something that should not be lost in the blame game, yet they threw away a year, are probably getting a lesser deal than they might have extracted at an earlier date, and they're being torn asunder internally as they point fingers at the hard-line element within their ranks.

A loss where there didn't have to be a loss.

For owners, it appears all of this will have been worth it. For current players, those with finite earning power and an average career of five years, not a chance, even if those following them ultimately benefit from a new partnership with the NHL.

This was a battle that was unfortunately and tragically predictable years ago simply because of the character of the man leading the players and for no other reason other than that.

Today is settlement day. Tomorrow is blame day.

And after that, presuming both sides ratify this deal a very exciting summer for fans of NHL hockey.




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