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More to CBA negotiations than money

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

“Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out.” – Martin Scorsese, legendary film director

Framing matters, regardless of the situation or your station in life. Any story’s borders and the picture they create can distort famine into feast, heels into heroes, oases into wastelands. That’s why the framing of the NHL’s upcoming labor showdown is so crucial – and why savvy sports fans need to wise up to the reality beyond the easy cliches surrounding the modern-day athlete’s business negotiations.

For instance, everybody acknowledges professional sports has become as much of an entertainment product as any movie or music recording, but for some reason, the average NHL fan isn’t as willing to scowl at Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie and their multiple, multi-million-dollar paydays and say “I’d act for free!” the way they look at Joe Thornton or Sidney Crosby and call them overpaid bums who receive far too much money to play a kids’ game.

Of course, I’m not here to tell you NHLers and other pro athletes aren’t wildly overcompensated beyond their actual value to society. However, we live in a world where financial priorities and rewards are warped, house-of-mirrors style, and we’re so far down the looking glass in that regard, neither the claw-back of NHLer salaries during the next collective bargaining agreement nor the humbling of the NHL Players’ Association will result in teachers and emergency service personnel being paid what they’re actually worth.

But back to that movie comparison for a moment. Did you know that, time and again, parties involved with the making of Hollywood movies have sued each other thanks to money disputes? Actors, directors and producers who’ve negotiated shares of the profits have often been told by studios there were no profits at all, even in the case of the most successful films ever made. If distrust isn’t the prevailing sentiment, it’s certainly there all the time, lurking in the rear of the room, waiting to step to the fore when business relationships crumble.

Now, I’m not suggesting NHL owners are engaged in shady financial practices. But there is a belief among some agents and players their league has a different interpretation than they do of what should constitute all-important hockey-related revenue.

Take the league’s stance on expansion and relocation-fee monies it receives (most recently, in the case of the Thrashers moving from Atlanta to Winnipeg and becoming the Jets): as indicated in the current CBA, the players get exactly zero percent of any and all of those funds. In fairness, that should change in the next deal, especially when so many hockey people are quick to acknowledge that Wayne Gretzky’s brilliance as a player and his time in Los Angeles helped the league expand into U.S. Sunbelt territory. If the NHL business is essentially a partnership between owners and players, as the league loved to claim during the 2004-05 lockout, why are they only partners on certain aspects of the business?

Beats me, but that’s the way the owners have chosen to frame that issue. That’s well within their right, but it is equally valid for the NHLPA to challenge that view and fight for what it believes to be its fair share of the financial pie.

Again, I get that people have an emotional investment in their sports teams that isn’t there to the same degree (if at all) when they pay to see a film or attend a concert. But the principle is the same: professional athletes, just like all mass-media entertainers, are paid what the market they operate in can bear. They have the right to question that market, to dispute it, to say “no, that’s not appropriate” just as any union or individual worker does. And if hockey fans could put aside their tribal impulses and failed-dream jealousies and quit telling themselves they were only a knee injury away from being an NHLer (and current players should just be happy they’re not on a construction crew breaking bricks for a hundred bucks a day), they might not be so quick to label the guys they otherwise cheer on as being greedy for doing so.

Framing matters, folks. Accounting matters. Transparency and validated trust matters. Saying so may not be as catchy as saying, “I’d play in the NHL for free” – a statement that, considering the thousands of hours and sacrifices that go into any player’s career, is the dumbest thing any sentient human being could utter – but it is the truth.

So as we get closer to more serious CBA negotiations (and perhaps another lockout), don’t be so quick to fall back on old storylines and worn-out banalities in expressing your frustrations. Try seeing things through a different lens. Recognize there is information outside the picture that isn’t being presented to you.

Your current frame of mind may be a quite comfortable fit, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one.

Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to His Power Rankings appear Mondays, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.

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