Charlton's NHL: CBA Impasse
Like Sand Through the Hour Glass ...

Rick Charlton
August 10th, 2004

The years have dwindled to mere months and will soon turn to weeks, days and then hours, the countdown to labour Armageddon in the NHL advancing inexorably to what seems like a foregone conclusion.

At least half a season lost and perhaps a whole lot more, both sides retreating in the last week to firmer positions from which compromise appears increasingly unlikely.

If this is to be solved before training camps open, it would seem one party or the other will have to capitulate, as unlikely as Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow clasping hands and swinging into a cheek-to-cheek slow waltz around the Saddledome.

On one side last week was Bill Daly, chief legal barracuda for the owners, echoing earlier thoughts from Bettman that a luxury tax system was a non-starter for the NHL, burying what might have been the middle ground, the league insisting instead in every variance on a system of business that ties salaries to revenues.

On the flip side was Daly's NHLPA doppelganger, Ted Saskin, offering cryptic remarks in which he apparently withdrew an earlier proposal for a 5% pay cut while stating redundantly that a salary cap system or anything smelling of "cost certainty" would never fly with his members.

Although media pundits like to pick one side or the other and accuse it of failing to negotiate, the truth is both seem to be hardening to the task ahead, determined to test the mettle of the other, a veritable High Noon with $1.5 billion nestled in the bank for the last man standing on Main Street.

While it's still early as far as these things go, the brass tacks of hard negotiating still ahead of us in the waning moments of mid-September when the current CBA expires, the bottom line statements from both parties appear to be far more than the posturing the blindingly hopeful among us want to believe.

Not that we should have expected anything less.

Both have gone half a season before, perhaps astonishing each other in 1994 with their fortitude, and both seem ready to go at least that distance once again.

Moreover, the NHL's insistence on "cost certainty" and particularly the point of tying player compensation to revenues has an even more sinister element to it, one that hasn't been explored at all in the media and has yet to be vocalized publicly by the NHLPA.

The normal formula in any sport labour dispute is that players typically suffer greatly during a work stoppage given they are paid nothing while it's ongoing. When play resumes; it's usually owners who are then in a pickle, the bills returning but the fans still sitting on the sidelines.

Conversely, it figures that a lengthy labour dispute will leave the NHL damaged when all is said and done, attendance in many cities in a gate-driven league probably slow to return to previous levels and consequently, revenues likely to take a hit league wide.

At least that's what the doomsayers are telling us and for a moment at least, let's go with the flow and agree.

If the NHLPA should eventually cave and player compensation is indeed tied to revenues in a new CBA, as the NHL is insisting, then it's logical to deduce players are not only going to be asked to take a sizeable pay cut up front, but they're also effectively being asked to foot a sizeable part of the bill for whatever damages might result from a lengthy shutdown as well.

In plain English, "cost certainty" may very well mean a further reduction in salaries post-lockout, beyond what the NHLPA might eventually agree to up front, given the assumed hip-to-hip and lip-to-lip relationship with revenues. If the NHL/NHLPA does agree on 60% of revenues for players, as an example, then obviously a league wide struggle with revenues could mean even a designated salary cap could shrink rather than advance. (Amusingly, if players actually get 75% of revenues, as an example, their total risk of damage increases.)

That's just one more incentive for players to hang tough. Or is it an incentive to settle early, before the NHL damages its relationship with fans? Tough call.

The fortitude of owners was probably strengthened considerably the other day with a credible poll indicating 82% of Canadian hockey fans favour the heavy hand of management in this dispute, a marked contrast from 1994 when the NHLPA position carried a great deal of weight and sympathy with the public in the fresh aftermath of the Alan Eagleson scandal.

While its doubtful those numbers are as lopsided in the USA where the overwhelming majority of teams reside, it's still a clear indication NHL owners are spinning the ball their way in the public arena, certainly far more sophisticated in their message than 10 years ago when they appeared to be often outclassed and outmaneuvered by their unwashed counterparts. To say Bettman and owners often looked like "deer in the headlights" as each development surfaced would be an understatement ... at least until the point where Hawks defenceman Chris Chelios deemed it necessary to raise eyebrows with an apparent threat to the personage of Bettman and his family.

Ten years later, with fandom apparently gathering behind owners in droves, the PR effectiveness of the Arthur Leavitt report on league finances now clear, the ticket buying bumpkins are being described as "morons." "Ill-informed" and "inconsequential" by various media commentators, all of whom might be better served looking in the mirror given their failure to deduce the obvious consequences for a gate driven league of this surprising slant in public opinion.

Unlike 1994 when we were told repeatedly by disgruntled fans on late night sports shows that they were ready to "abandon the game and not come back," enough to scare both sides into some modicum of compromise as they stared over the precipice, we instead see a clear indication that fans are not only content to wait for a result satisfactory to ownership but also seem willing to return with their money when that is achieved.

Is that inconsequential information to owners? Or to players? Hardly. Call fans "ill-informed" and "morons" if you want but at least note the importance of the trend.

If anything, the poll results may be serving to entrench owners into a harder line position.

Owners can insist on linking salaries to revenues, believing fans will either return when the dust settles, no matter how long it takes, OR, as noted earlier, owners can assume that a fair portion of whatever damages might result from wholesale abandonment by fans will be taken care of by "cost certainty" as player costs are forced even lower in the post-apocalypse aftermath.

Viewed that way, is there a substantial risk to owners in a lengthy shutdown? Far less than we might suppose unless they fail to link salaries to revenues, if they fold and run up a white flag after a lengthy lockout, without cost certainty, sacrificing everything and gaining nothing.

If NHL owners are lying - and they might be since they always have before - then we'll find out soon enough but not too soon, probably in January when we reach a point where a full season has to be cancelled, where the free money of the playoffs is truly in peril, where the fans are still interested and where a season can still be recouped.

They'll fold, the NHLPA is hoping, because they never had a case to begin with. They're lying, the NHLPA believes, just like they've lied in the past. And if the lying liars are lying, then they'll have no backbone for the tough fight. They'll kiss off half a season, then they'll compromise.

The optimists are right about one thing. There's time to get something done before training camps. You often see negotiations of this type going into the last hours and last minutes before either side finds out what the other is really willing to sacrifice.

But they're too far apart now. The middle ground is an abandoned wasteland. Neither side is seriously negotiating. No luxury tax says the league, not now and not ever. No salary cap says the NHLPA, not now and not ever.

What's left?

Apparently there's not enough on the line for one of these parties to cry uncle and no willingness to abandon their respective perches to seek the middle ground.


IN MOST DISPUTES OF THIS TYPE, ACROSS ALL INDUSTRIES, it's typically owners and managers who have made the mistakes that lead to points like this. Fans shouldn't waste much time blaming players for the current predicament given they've merely done what's within their rights and in many cases, even less, simply standing around while owners threw bags of money at their heads. Yes owners are to blame ... but players will bear the burden. Is that fair? It doesn't matter since that's the way it is in any industry or business that finds itself overextended. Workers are always told either "accept pay cuts or accept fewer jobs" ... and sometimes both. The real world is littered with such examples and you can see them playing out in the financial news on a weekly basis. In this case, NHL owners spent as though they expected television to eventually pay for it all, a 40 year-old dream that has probably finally died. That might be what this CBA negotiation is all about, the revenue outlook for television being wrestled back to more realistic levels, the NHL returning to its roots as a primarily gate-driven league and one that senses it needs to find a system of business that reflects that.

"I CAN PLAY LONG ENOUGH TO CATCH GORDIE, BUT CERTAINLY NOT WAYNE. That's OK. I'd be thrilled to be second to the greatest player to ever play the game." Brett Hull, now a visibly slowing 40 and signed for two more years with the Phoenix Coyotes, perhaps revealing why he continues to soldier on. Hull is at 741 goals, 60 behind Howe at 801 and 153 behind Gretzky. Hull would naturally have to tally an average of 30 in each of the next two years to catch Howe, an unlikely feat given the deterioration in his game and his advancing age. Unless he plans to be a floating, self-serving cherry-picker on a young Coyotes team.

"THEY'VE ABSOLUTELY PLANNED THIS LOCKOUT FOR A WHILE. That has been clear from (Gary Bettman's) agenda for a number of years. (The NHL) already has laid off half its staff. I think that is lunacy as an objective. The players are prepared. They are not going to accept a salary cap." - Ted Saskins, chief legal poohbah of the NHLPA. Meanwhile, the union has been telling its players for the last several years to save their dollars for a lockout and has amassed a $100 million strike fund, apparently by coincidence. A classic case of the "pot" calling the kettle "black."

THE RECENT FIRM STATEMENTS BY BETTMAN AND DALY THAT A LUXURY TAX has no future in the NHL is a surprising development given Bettman late last season told a Calgary radio audience that he sees the Canadian Assistance Programs, so instrumental in the Flames and Oilers survival to this point, replaced by a more general form of revenue sharing. Yours truly took this to mean an eventual compromise with the NHLPA on a luxury tax, whereby monies would be distributed among the lesser economic powers via penalties. Instead we have owners in recent days shutting that possibility off completely. Did Bettman harden his line in the last few months or was he referring to straight revenue sharing, in which case he doesn't need any agreement with the NHLPA? Will Canadian teams even need revenue assistance or currency protection for retaining restricted free agents in the next agreement? Meanwhile, my prediction two years ago that the ultimate result of this CBA will be a $35 million hard cap with UFA status at age 25, endangered with talk of a luxury tax, appears to have some hope of still coming true given these latest developments.

RUNNING CONCURRENT WITH THE EFFORT TO GENERATE A NEW CBA IS A LEAGUE COMMITTEE LOOKING TO "FIX" THE NHL GAME. Some observers like media pundit Damien Cox of the Toronto Star or newly elected parliamentarian Ken Dryden believe any "fix" must be a radical one, involving four on four hockey as an example, perhaps shootouts to decide games, etc. Others are better described as "traditionalists" who find the current game well played and interesting the way it is, favouring only "tweaking." One of the latter group is Martin Brodeur of New Jersey who wrote an interesting treatise in the Globe & Mail a few days ago. While he launched into a predictable tirade defending goaltending equipment, his basic premise that the only thing wrong with the game is the refined suppression of quality scoring chances has a lot of merit. A league where games are decided by a margin of one goal or less 75% of the time must be theoretically thrilling to watch ... but the sizzle sort of dies when you remember that the team scoring first will secure at least a tie 75% of the time. First goal, game over. Not as simple as that but not too far off either. There's something a bit strangling about a league where the more competent defensive teams can run up streaks of 40 or more games where they secure at least a point when they have a lead heading into the third period. It lacks spontaneity, an unknown element, even if its true that even the worst team in the league can beat the best if the latter doesn't bring its "A" game. In any event, I continue to hold the opinion that anything the committee comes up with - save for something radical like four-on-four hockey - will do little to alter scoring statistics themselves given the league has averaged between five and six goals a game, with the exception of the diluted late 70's and 80's, for the better part of 75 years. It's not necessarily about scoring statistics as Brodeur pointed out. Its about finding the right formula to give the trailing team a chance to come back and win that the committee should be focussing on, just as Brodeur was intimating. Small goal, big job.


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