As we enter the last week before the NHL shuts its doors for its third lockout in 18 years, the league and the NHL Players’ Association will meet separately one more time. On Wednesday, the NHL will give its rubber-stamp approval to lock the players out this Saturday. On Thursday and Friday, the players will plot their lockout strategy.
It’s expected there will be more than 200 players at the New York meeting. And they’ll do so more galvanized than ever. In the past, the league could count on player apathy being a major advantage and even though all bets are off when the players start missing multiple paychecks, it doesn’t look as though it will have that particular step up this time around.
There are a couple of reasons for that. First, Don Fehr is showing why he is one of the most brilliant labor leaders in history. His approach since taking over the NHLPA has been so measured and transparent that he has the players’ unconditional trust and confidence. He is a veritable Pied Piper of Hamelin with the players marching behind him in lockstep.
The other reason, though, is the NHL is alienating such a broad scope of players that they have no alternative but to be united. This time around, there are so many clawbacks the owners want that they cut a swath across every possible status of NHL player. That tends to happen when your primary goal is to slash everyone’s pay. But this time the league has made adversaries out of its youngest and most talented players.
By proposing entry level contracts last five years instead of three, followed by five years of restricted free agency with no arbitration rights, the NHL has essentially declared war on the players who are basically the ones responsible for driving revenues so high. There has been a real shift of balance in the NHL in the last decade. Players are entering the league as teenagers or in their early 20s and they’re better prepared to withstand the rigors of playing in the best league in the world better than they ever have been before.
Consequently, the learning curve has typically been a lot less dramatic and it’s the players in their early to mid-20s who are the most dominant performers. When the league made unrestricted free agency available after just seven years of service in the old collective bargaining agreement, it gave young players the kind of contract leverage they had never experienced before. The thinking was that as long as costs were fixed with a salary cap, the teams could live with earlier free agency. But in practice, that theory has turned out to be disastrous. Armed with the knowledge that league revenues have risen every year, the young players have essentially gone from entry-level status to unparalled riches in one easy step.
But with the league trying to close that particular gap, it is now basically trying to indenture its top young players for the first decade of their careers. Those same players who have gotten used to being compensated commensurate with the talent instead of their experience are not impressed.
“The thing about it is they’ve kind of attacked every type of player that is out there,” said Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith. “Obviously, it’s a younger league now and to put those kinds of limits on the kids coming into the league – you’re in the prime of your career now between 20 and 30 – and you should be compensated for it. If you perform you should be paid whether you’re 21 or 27. But obviously the league disagrees with that.”
There is almost no public sympathy for the owners this time around, nor should there be. From the players’ standpoint, they have provided at least some sort of alternatives to helping the small market teams with creative revenue sharing and other initiatives. For example, one of their proposals was to award additional first-round picks to low-revenue teams, which those teams could either auction off or use to get another top prospect.
“We’ve at least tried to be creative,” said St. Louis Blues captain David Backes, “but all we’ve gotten in return is the same static, old-school thinking.”
But from their perspective, they’ve been met by nothing but stonewalling from the owners who want to recoup their losses on the backs of the players. And in doing so, a league that has almost always counted on fractures and apathy among the players may end up seeing the opposite.
Those who know Fehr are wondering when they’re going to begin seeing some teeth. It might take a while, since Fehr has rarely found himself in a position with such little leverage. But there’s no doubt they will come out at some point. And when they do, it will likely be with a galvanized army of players ready to back him up.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.