I’m not one to go back on a promise, but it feels fairly important that I do, because there seems to be a growing misconception over how and why this lockout is happening. It may be publicly pitting NHL against NHLPA, but in reality, the NHLPA is a necessary opponent, not a genuine one. Though I swore I was done talking about the lockout, it feels necessary to point this out.
This isn’t about Gary Bettman or Donald Fehr. This isn’t about player salaries or hotel room thread counts. This isn’t even about which teams are viable and which teams are not.
This is about owners trying to find a way to trust each other.
It sounds a little bizarre but it makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Think back to past lockouts. The key issue was consistently a cap on salaries. This isn’t to keep player salaries down — they’ve never been higher than the eight year period post-2004 — but to ensure some level of competitive balance so all teams are equally capable of signing big name players.
Obviously the current salary cap system is flawed. The current mark is almost double what it was when the NHL returned from the last stoppage meaning that not all teams can find that competitive pay balance that the system was meant to ensure. I, for one, would love to know how a team like Winnipeg or Florida plans to consistently break even under the current system with the cap floor the league has in place.
NHL franchise financials are not public domain, but if they ever came out I’m willing to bet we’d find a lot of red ink — much of it owing to how high the water mark is to field a legitimate roster. There is reason for skepticism among the majority of NHL owners.
Going back to 1994, the league lost half a season over — you guessed it — the issue of a salary cap. The cap as we know it was never put in place, but rookie deals became stricter and, in a way, inadvertently grandfathered in the current system. The lockout ran out its course when big market teams (go figure!) started to dissent in NHL ranks. All of a sudden that hard cap didn’t need to hang over negotiations. The teams with money realized that making it was far more important than limiting it.
And here we are in 2012 — totally landlocked in negotiations — with the same underlying concept playing a role. The NHL has their salary cap which, in theory and not practice, ought to level a financial playing field across the league. Now the issue is finding a way to keep player salaries and contract lengths under control.
Aye, there’s the rub.
The sensible person will always point out that it was, in fact, the owners who agreed to sign these deals, who commissioned a team of managers and legal minds to find ways around the constrictions of the system they wanted in place to get a leg up in competition. These gymnastics are why teams like Nashville now have to pay a 14 year, $110 million deal to their captain and most valuable asset, Shea Weber — Philadelphia is rather adept at cap circumvention.
As are Detroit and Chicago and Minnesota and the New York Rangers among others. Teams with entrenched fanbases in metropolitan centers who know that they can fork out the money and still generate revenue. You can bet that if Toronto didn’t have a general manager who decided to make a pseudo-ethical stand on this one issue they would be cap circumventers too.
This is why the NHLPA hired Donald Fehr — a seasoned tactician in these situations — to lead their charge. Because after multiple instances of collapsing under owner paranoia, they want to win one. Rightfully so. It’s not their fault that the Nashville Predators or Columbus Blue Jackets are mad at the Detroit Red Wings for breaking the game. They just reap the benefits. They’re the commodities which get paid for in this process.
Neither side has done themselves any favors during this process. They have been an utter nightmare publicly and, one may infer, behind closed doors as well. However, to suggest this lockout pits owners against players does the reality of the situation a disservice.
The owners, in conjunction with the NHL’s hired guns — Gary Bettman being one — have developed a list of demands which they believe will prevent the Ed Sniders of the world plucking their players from them for exorbitant sums while they sleep. Players are a necessary casualty of an internal legal war. They are not victims — you’d be hard pressed to find a victim of anything who earns six or more figures — but they are passive agents caught in their employers’ crossfire.
This lockout isn’t about the NHL vs. the NHLPA. This lockout is about the NHL vs. the NHL. And when you’re dealing with billionaires who haven’t been told “No.” since they were pre-pubescent, you don’t have much room for optimism in the middle.