With the ouster of Paul Kelly as executive of the NHL Players’ Association and the expectation that the next leader of the union will be a hardliner, the notion there could be another work stoppage in a couple of years has begun to gain some steam.
The current collective bargaining agreement between the players and the league expires after the 2010-11 season, with the players having the right to extend the agreement to 2012.
Pundits are unanimous in their feeling that another lockout in three years’ time would be devastating for the game, a development from which the NHL might not recover.
I’m not so sure that’s the way things are going to go. First of all, there’s a little-known provision in the CBA that actually allows for the agreement to be extended on a year-to-year basis indefinitely, provided both sides agree to abide by the existing agreement. It says right in the CBA that the agreement, “shall remain in effect from year to year…unless and until either party shall deliver to the other a written notice of termination of this agreement at least 120 days prior to Sept. 15, 2011 or not less than a like period in any year thereafter.”
You can bet your bottom dollar the players will never be the ones to terminate this agreement. While realizing it’s not perfect, the players have made out remarkably well in this deal and they know the next round of negotiations will include further concessions on salary and challenges to the sacrosanctity of guaranteed contracts, no-movement clauses and long-term deals. As it was the last time around, the players will be more than happy to keep things status quo for as long as possible.
That leaves the owners. But any protest certainly puts them in a tight spot from a public relations standpoint. On one hand, they’ll bleat over how the system needs to be improved – and there’s little doubt the next CBA will have to include even more safeguards for owners of NHL teams to save them from themselves. But they’ll also take a pounding for being the ones responsible for shutting the game down for the second time in less than a decade.
So, perhaps it’s not so cut-and-dried. After all, if the owners decide that shutting the game down for an extended period of time would do more long-term damage than living with the current CBA, then perhaps they might also opt to keep the current agreement going on an indefinite basis.
And if they didn’t, where exactly is the evidence that hockey would be indelibly adversely affected by another lockout? As near as I can tell, there isn’t much evidence the last one did irreparable damage. In fact, you could argue the game came back stronger than ever in a lot of ways after the NHL closed its doors for a season.
For whatever reason, this wasn’t baseball in 1994. The work stoppage that ended that season went a long way toward killing the Montreal Expos and led to baseball losing a legion of fans, but there’s little evidence to suggest the same thing happened in hockey. For the most part, those who were hockey fans appeared to come back stronger than ever after the lockout and those who weren’t continued to ignore the sport. To be sure, the game came back in Canada in a very big way and continues to be incredibly robust from a business standpoint.
And don’t forget, the lockout allowed the people who run the NHL to take a step back and have a serious review of the on-ice product. That led to a crackdown on obstruction that has made the game much better from an entertainment standpoint and you can be sure that wouldn’t have happened had the league been running throughout the 2004-05 season.
In fact, after the lockout, one respected hockey executive said perhaps what the game needs is to take a break every five years or so. It certainly appears to rekindle the fires of those who love it.
I’m just not convinced another lockout three years down the road – or any other time – would automatically spell the doom and gloom others predict.
THE REST OF THE STORY?
Another thing on the Kelly firing: when the news first broke, I was among the many who leaped to Kelly’s defense and criticized the NHLPA for making a terrible decision. I still believe that, but if it is true Kelly accessed a confidential transcript of an NHLPA meeting, then he certainly has to accept some culpability in his demise.
The fact of the matter is, the NHLPA was already well on the road to firing Kelly before this ever happened. Otherwise the meeting would have never taken place and there would have been no report reviewing his leadership of the association. But a source close to the situation said the allegations of Kelly’s act were the tipping point for most players in their decision to fire him. Would he have been fired if not for the allegations? It’s impossible to tell, but there is little doubt the knives were out for him already.
Another thing that disturbs me a little is in his rebuttal statement, Kelly never actually comes out and says he didn’t access the report. He talks about it being a “false and misleading attack” and talks of his integrity being beyond reproach, but I would have been a lot more comfortable about his position if he had said beyond no shadow of a doubt that he never read the transcript or tried to gain access to it.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.