When I started watching hockey, there was a player on the Habs by the name of Garth Murray. You remember Garth Murray? Fourth-liner, kind of pugnacious, weird hair? No? That’s not all that surprising. Unless you were a Habs fan in 2006-2007, chances are you barely even saw Garth Murray. He played 43 games that year, the most he ever got in the NHL in a season. In that year, he scored 2 goals and 1 assist, racked up 32 PIMs and not one playoff game. The next season the Habs dressed him exactly once before trading him to Florida, where he played six games. The following year he showed up in Phoenix for ten. That was 2009. He hasn’t been seen in the NHL since.
Garth Murray’s professional hockey career covered ten years and ten teams, 535 games. Only 116 of those were in the Show.
When we look at the NHLPA and we think about ‘professional hockey players’, we think of the guys standing behind Fehr in that picture. We think Sidney Crosby, we think millionaire. But Garth Murray is a far better representation of a ‘typical’ NHL player than the first line celebrities on the vanguard of CBA negotiations. More than half of NHL careers cover less than six seasons and fewer than 100 games. For most players, their time in the NHL is a brief flash of luck that pays thousands rather than millions, and even for those who manage to hang on longer, nothing is guaranteed. The rate of attrition falls every season, but it persists. Next year is always less certain than the one before. On average, about 140 of the players who were in the NHL in a season will never play in it again. Between the 2003-4 season and the 2005-6 season, that number jumped to 241. Considering that there are around 1000 members of the NHLPA, as much as 20% of the association, knowingly or not, might be locking out the end of their career.
So why would they do it? Even leaving aside those who will lose their jobs, hundreds more will lose income that could well be the most money they’ll ever be able to make in hockey. Forget the millionaires, there are a lot of thousandaires in the PA for whom the difference between a partial season of NHL salary and a whole season of AHL salary is the difference between their lifetime of investment in the game being repaid or not. Calling such players ‘greedy’ is exactly the opposite of true: everything in their naked self-interest screams play for anything while you can. They’re not going to make themselves more money by sitting a year, they’re not going to get any better chance at a long-term stint in the League. They’re just getting a year older and a year closer to the long tail of their hockey life, to all those rusty AHL seasons of bruised obsolescence and long bus rides through the night.
Likewise, the top players have little incentive to fight this fight. The ones who get to stand center stage in the photo ops, those guys have irreplaceable talents and a whole battalion of excellent lawyers. They’ll get bajillions under any regime, and, in fact, most of them have locked up their bajillions already. So long as there isn’t a roll-back of salaries, these gentlemen are set. Sure, they can afford to lose the time, but for what? What do they lose, exactly, if the cap of the future is lower than the cap of today? When the go UFA again, if they go UFA again, there will always be four or five or twenty GMs pushing millions across the table. That’s what GMs do.
Who is the NHL player with a good personal, selfish, individual reason to lock out? Who is the guy whose Ayn-Randian interest is to lose this season? An excellent player who hasn’t cashed in yet, I suppose. Gabriel Landeskog, I guess. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. But such players are a small (and young) percentage of the PA. They can’t possibly drive the policies of the association.
The PA should be an inherently weak organization. Most NHLers need to be cashing in now. They have every incentive to give up and take fewer millions just to get millions at all. That they should hold out against the League makes psychological sense- the owners’ proposal seems unfair and no one likes to feel bullied- but very little practical sense. The players who are here, right now, in this negotiation, have every reason to cave and cave fast.
Consider, on top of all that, that they have no leverage. The PA has nothing that the owners want save their bodies, and the owners have happily locked those bodies out. Sure, the Association can piss around with labor law in Alberta and Quebec, fiddly, irritating little gestures like mosquitoes pecking at the ass of a rhino, but unless Fehr has some kind of ginormous antitrust suit or decertification ploy he’s been saving for just such an occasion, the players have nothing with which to threaten their masters.
The only way the PA can win this is to outwait the opposition. If they can wait long enough, just stubbornly hold out, there may come a point when the League starts to fear permanent destruction to the NHL brand and its business partnerships, and at that point perhaps the pressure dynamic shifts and the owners have some incentive to give. But it will be a very long wait, especially on the geologic timescale of Ed Snider. Can young men who need to profit from their bodies before the muscles weaken and the joints blow really hold out against old men who are accustomed to massing their profits over decades?
The players’ decision to fight this battle is strangely magnanimous; the only reason to do it is concern for the future. For most of the men here and now, the lockout makes no difference or actually hurts, even if they ‘win’ in the end. The win wouldn’t be much of a win for many of the guys fighting the battle. It’d be a win for future generations of players. Again and again, the players note that they (or their predecessors) lost in 2004-05, and the implication is clear: if we lose again, we may keep losing forever. Winning now is an investment in the earning power of their little brothers still in junior and the sons they haven’t even borne yet. For men so reputedly greedy, they seem very willing to leave their millions on the table in order to preserve the opportunity for others to make millions later.
But I wonder: if the NHL put together a long-term deal that allowed this PA to keep everything they have for most of their careers at the expense of the future, would that be enough to fracture the unity? If Bettman came into a meeting and said, here is a CBA that rolls back the players’ percentage of HRR over ten slow years, would enough players prefer to throw their hypothetical sons under the bus for the guarantee of their own next deal? If the owners offered a long CBA with extended ELCs starting three years in and and contract limitations rolling out after five, enough to give everybody a chance to lock in the deal of their dreams under the lucrative old ways, would the Association cave? The owners- the owners who matter, anyway- have time on their side, while time itself is rift all through the PA. It could easily be the players’ breaking point.