By all accounts, the negotiations for a deal to end The Lockout, Part III are beginning to get a little more serious. Please excuse us if you’ve heard this kind of thing before and gotten your hopes up, only to see them come crashing down amidst a sea of rhetoric.
Or as NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr cautioned, let’s not all get our shorts in a knot over a couple of phone calls and a day of productive conversation. Sometimes all that leads to is both sides realizing they still disagree.
But the fact there seems to be a sliver of hope 51 days into this lockout confirms to me what I have maintained from the beginning – this impasse will end when the NHL, and only the NHL, decides it will end.
The NHL has the power to put an end to all of this right now if it wants to do so. But if the goal is to simply save the 2012-13 season, it would be ridiculous for the NHL to go this far, then not get what it wants out of the next collective bargaining agreement. It must absolutely get it right this time, preferably on a deal that gives the game labor peace for at least the next decade.
It’s absolutely incredible how the league, by virtue of being more generous on its “make whole” provision that is more complex than the plot of the first Mission Impossible movie, is somehow being conciliatory here. The league has done a fair bit of classic negotiating here. It came in with an initial offer that was so laughable that anything beyond it makes the league look as though it’s granting concessions. Do not believe that for one moment. The players made 57 percent of revenues in the last agreement and, somehow, they’re going to come away with 50 percent of them in this one. There is not a single provision as of yet that is not a claw-back on the players. One of the biggest mistakes people have made during this lockout is to measure the NHL’s concessions off their first offer, instead of measuring them off the last agreement. Under the first scenario, the league looks like quite a progressive bunch. Under the second, they look like sharks that smell blood.
As the talks enter (another) crucial stage, the biggest issues seem to be how to get to the 50-50 threshold and still have existing contracts honored at 100 cents on the dollar.
Another is the salary cap floor, a scheme that was pushed through by the large-market owners in the last CBA to prevent their partners from simply pocketing revenue sharing money. So basically, they built a CBA that gave with one hand and took away with another. That’s why when league revenues go up, it’s the worst possible news for the small-market teams. It’s not their markets that are driving the revenue increases, but they’re the ones who end up paying more than they can afford because of it. The moneymakers are still saving so much compared to when there was no salary cap that not only do they not mind paying more in salaries, they welcome the ability to spend more on players.
That’s a huge disconnect that simply must be repaired if the new CBA is going to even come close to addressing the needs of the small-market teams. There has been the idea floated that the floor should be a percentage of the upper end of the cap instead of $16 million below it. The number that has been floated is 70 percent. So, based on what the cap would have been this year ($70.2 million), under the old system teams would have been forced to spend $54.2 million on salaries. If you apply the 70 percent provision, that total goes down to $49.1 million.
It’s a good start, but it probably doesn’t go far enough, particularly if the NHL gets its way and stops performance bonuses from counting against the salary cap whether they’re attained or not. That was one way the small-market teams were able to get up to the floor without actually spending the money.
So, how about this? The league could apply the 70 percent rule, but take it one step further. Teams that get to the floor would be eligible to receive revenue sharing payments, but those who choose not to spend to the floor would not. That way a team would have a choice over whether it wants to go over budget on its player expenses.
So many questions. Two things seem certain, though. One is that even though the two sides are talking, there are still a ton of potential land mines that can undermine any of the modest progress the two sides have made to date. Another is that this lockout will end only when the league decides it wants to get serious about cutting a deal.
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.