By Ryan Lambert
I am at peace with the idea of a lockout.
I should say first that I don't want a lockout to happen, obviously. But I honestly don't think there will even be one. And if there is one, I'm okay with it, because I don't think anyone is stupid enough to let it last for more than a few weeks.
The reason for my steadfast belief in this is simple. You can probably say a lot of things about the either side of the aisle in this tête-à-tête — they're greedy, they're power-hungry, they're looking only for what's fair, they're trying to increase their share of the pie — but one thing they're definitely not is stupid.
Yes, the owners' initial offer to the Players' Association was an insult and no grounds at all for any kind of labor peace but they also know what's ultimately at stake here. No one benefits from a lengthy lockout, or indeed, any amount of work stoppage because everyone is currently doing great.
The salary cap has pretty much exploded to nearly double its original post-lockout number, meaning that hockey-related revenues have done so as well. Hockey-related revenues also don't include a whole bunch of things that owners make money on as a result of running hockey teams. No one is getting clobbered here, as they were prior to the 2004-05 lockout, when the lack of a salary cap allowed big market teams to spend an insane amount of money on whatever players they wanted and small-market teams were left scratching in the dirt with the meager few talented players they drafted and not much else.
As Charles Pierce presciently pointed out a week or so ago, what the owners want more than anything is the ability to say they broke the players' backs in yet another collective bargaining agreement. Nothing more, nothing less.
That kind of pre-lockout inequity is, to an extent, rearing its head once again, though, and that could throw a lot of things into chaos. Ownership also seems not to be nearly as strong in its unity because the current revenue sharing system (hey! Revenue again!) can't begin to make sense for anyone involved except — you guessed it — the top teams, who simply know they're going to end up losing some amount to it. Your Maple Leafs, your Rangers, your Flyers, your Red Wings, your Bruins. These teams make boatloads of money and kick that down to a smaller number of teams that largely do not, and it probably won't surprise you to learn that it's a few of these richer teams' owners are reportedly the ones trying to bludgeon the NHLPA into taking that bad first deal they offered. Meanwhile, poorer teams are still left wondering what, exactly, becomes of their revenue sharing money.
Hawks in ownership aside, though, the Players' Association simply isn't the kind of mewling mess it was last time around. They came prepared to play hardball by taking up Donald Fehr on his "Shut up and let me handle this," proposal, and Fehr isn't a man to get bullied in labor negotiations. Arguably the strongest players' union in North American professional sports is that of Major League Baseball, and it's no coincidence that Fehr is largely the architect thereof. He's not going to get bullied by anyone sitting across from him. He is a bit of an old hand at this.
The NHLPA's counter-proposal is expected to come at some point this week as long as they can get a closer look at some teams' financials (and, by the time you read this, may have already done so). The simplest proposal is pretty clear: Stick with this basic CBA, at least for a little while. That's an option that some have hinted at being possible, and would give everyone a significant amount of time to work toward a more workable long-term solution. Again, no one's taking some sort of big hit under the current system — ask Shea Weber, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, who all signed jumbo deals agreed to by actual small-market NHL owners — and therefore it must be doing something in a way that all sides find agreeable.
Now, it should be pointed out that lots of people think Weber locked in his massive contract, with its huge bonuses in the first two years, this summer so that he would not be at the mercy of whatever CBA is eventually agreed upon by next summer, when he would have been an unrestricted free agent. That shows a little bit of pessimism as far as a salary rollback is concerned, and possibly also that those owners didn't think they'd have to dole out nearly as much money as the initial contract stated. But nonetheless, this is huge money being tossed around, with huge commitments from players.
We know the current CBA works. It vindicates Bettman's plans for the league, and it's getting players both great and less so paid. I understand this is the National Hockey League we're talking about, but I'm going to say this next sentence anyway: Logic has to win out. Why blow everything up? Why risk that much uncertainty? There are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake and that's impossible to look past because this is a business.
But everyone is getting rich already. With a season at stake, or even part of one, allowing that to continue in lieu of another lamentable, counterproductive work stoppage, during which no one makes money, is extraordinarily sensible.
Maybe I'm asking too much in hoping that both the league and the union err on the side of reason and continual money-making, but I firmly believe that a bunch of businessmen can figure it out.
Ryan Lambert is a columnist for Puck Daddy. Follow him on Twitter or whatever.