The NHL is a year away from the conclusion of its current collective bargaining agreement, but a few members of the hockey community are peering into their crystal balls and steeling themselves for another labor war.
Some, like my THN colleague Ken Campbell, believe the latest results of the league’s annual free agent overpayment orgy are a harbinger of another bare-fangs battle between team owners and players. Others – specifically, league-friendly voices in the media – see the NHL Players’ Association’s hiring of former Major League Baseball Players’ Association chief Don Fehr as a reason to buy duct tape and stockpile ramen noodles.
Well, sorry, but I’m not buying it. Getting worked up into a good lather over a situation that doesn’t scream “showdown”(at least, not yet) is a disservice to righteous lathers. I don’t want to be Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun shooing you away and saying, “move along, nothing to see here,” but right now, you need to move along, because there really is nothing to see.
For starters, the war over the NHL’s salary cap – the central issue behind the 2004-05 lockout season – is long ended. There is no going back to a time without cap restrictions and everybody, Fehr included, knows it.
“I don’t get the same vibe I had in ’04,” an NHLPA source told THN.com in December, when Fehr officially was named the union’s executive director. “I think the league is going to try and squeeze (the players for concessions) in as many areas as they can, but I don’t see an over-my-dead-body issue to draw a line in the sand over this time.”
Gary Bettman and the owners are rumored to want a reduction in the players’ overall share of revenues (last season, NHLers got 57 percent of the pie), term limits on contracts (some agents believe the league wants to cap the number of contracted seasons at between five and seven), a significant reduction in the salary cap floor and victories in some ancillary issues that likely would bore you into instant narcolepsy were I to detail them here. That’s not enough to miss a year of hockey over.
Now, if the league is feeling more ballsy than it did when it rewrote the CBA on the fly last summer to guard against any Ilya Kovalchuk-like “circumventions,” it could employ a scorched-earth policy of going after players’ guaranteed contracts. That’s a situation in which NHLers would be prepared not to play for at least a season. And they would be justified in doing so.
Can you imagine? A league that demands so much sacrifice and physicality from its athletes, turning around and removing the only security those athletes receive?
The NHL has done some shameful stuff over the years, but abolishing guaranteed contracts would take the cake, poison it to the point of being inedible and serve as the greatest stain on Bettman’s already-stained legacy. Fans who honestly love players would be disgusted and media who rationalize support for the owners after such an aggressive move would be exposed for their blind sycophancy.
Conversely, can you picture Fehr, after a little more than a year on the job, pushing his players into a fight with a group of billionaires who proved they were willing to put their revenue-generating toys on the shelf for a full year in order to have it their way? Not a chance. He’ll be a strong, necessary backbone for the players, but he won’t be an id run amok, the way Bob Goodenow was just before the players mutinied on him.
One NHL GM who pays attention to all professional North American sports accurately predicted the end of the National Football League’s lockout and speculated that the National Basketball Association would suffer through a painful work stoppage that could mirror hockey’s lost season. But the way he said it should infuse hockey fans with a good degree of optimism for the future.
“The NFL will play this year, but the NBA is ready to miss the entire year,” he said. “They’re broken like we were.”
Did you catch the tense the GM used there when he referred to “we” (a.k.a. the NHL)? “They’re broken like we were.”
Past tense. Indicating that the NHL no longer is broken.
So chill out, enjoy the summer and focus on the next season of NHL hockey. The state of the league may unexpectedly shift drastically between now and this time next year, but as it stands, there’s no evidence cooler heads won’t prevail and prevent hockey from taking another businessman’s boot to the unprotected goolies.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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