It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying let’s say even the slightest bit of minimum attention to the NHL’s current labor negotiations. Things are, to put it mildly, not going very well.
Well, to be honest, things have actually iced over a bit, moreso than anything else. Players and owners met for more than hours yesterday then had some dinner, and it seems to have been fairly productive. They say there was progress, though varying reports haven’t exactly shed a lot of light on what exactly that means. The distance between the two sides is repeatedly termed small, a couple hundred million over five years, next to nothing on a per-club basis. And yet here we are, weeks later. Frankly, I and probably many other hockey fans won’t be satisfied with any of this stuff until they put a new signed CBA on NHL.com and we can look to make sure there’s a no-takebacks provision buried deep in the language. (Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.)
But the point I guess is that people are desperate for hockey and skeptical that anything can get done. So desperate, in fact, that even people who have some amount of credibility in Canada, or should do, are now throwing some truly dumbassed ideas against the wall as a means of accomplishing who-knows-what.
The latest person to do so is Michael Taube, a former speechwriter for Stephen Harper(!), who wrote an op-ed in USA Today of all publications extolling the virtues of the NHL’s 29 owners withdrawing from the league. (I’m not sure if that means the Coyotes remain the only team in the NHL, which would at least provide it with a nice, easy Stanley Cup run.) Entitled, “Time to kill the National Hockey League,” the column basically spends a lot of time mixing metaphors, playing in numerous misconceptions at best or outright lies at worst, and maybe gets to the heart of the matter for one paragraph in the middle.
First, Taube compares the NHL to banks deemed “Too Big To Fail,” but which failed anyway in the financial meltdown of 2007 brought on by toxic mortgage default swaps and so on and so forth. On the surface, this kind of analogy makes at least some kind of sense; there are a lot of bad assets in the league, and if you believe Forbes’ numbers (I don’t necessarily), 18 of the league’s 30 teams are losing money every season. “Only the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens are making ‘real’ profits,” Taube writes. But of course, those good teams are not leveraged with stake in the bad ones, at least not really. Why not? Because revenue sharing is a mess.
And here’s where Taube goes completely and totally off the rails. His argument is that the league screwed itself by giving players 57 percent of revenues. This is of course wrong for a few reasons, not the least of which being that he didn’t specify hockey-related revenues which are different from overall revenues, obviously. Second, if I recall correctly, the original split was closer to 54-46 (or 55-45) for the players and that number rose in the PA’s favor as HRR increased some 50 percent since the last CBA was signed. So, stuff there that’s disingenuous at worst and just wrong at best, but okay, let’s continue to entertain that line of thinking.
If the reason the league is failing — it’s not by the way — is that the players are getting too much of its hockey-related revenues, then the only answer is to reduce their share. To 50-50. Though the NHL’s offers for such, with their accompanying massive rollbacks in players’ contracting right, were described by Taube as “fair,” and Donald Fehr’s refusal to accept them as not being based in “reality,” let’s even entertain that cuckoo line of thinking as well. The NHLPA’s staunch refusal to accept reality can mean only one thing in Taube’s book (which has big type, about 30 pages and lot of pictures):
“As the dispute enters its 81st day, it is time to start planning the previously unimaginable: the death of the 95-year-old NHL.”
So just how would the NHL die in this new and exciting reality? No, it’s not Gary Bettman continuing to smother it with a pillow after that Sept. 15 lobotomy, then throwing a giant sink through a window and running off to the NBA. Instead, the owners, presumably all of them but maybe just the most profitable ones, going Galt and simply withdrawing from the league. That’s where the Too Big To Fail comparison ceases to work, full stop, and also the sign of good analysis of the situation: I have no idea what the author means.
Taube says the clubs that pull out of the NHL could then just start their own league. “The teams would need to renegotiate all arrangements with existing cities and/or arenas of now-former NHL teams. This could be a little tricky because the original deals were signed with the NHL, but it is in all parties’ best interests to work things out.” Ah that kind of thing all works itself out for sure. No need to look at it any closer.
The problem with this idea is a pretty simple one: It’s stupid.
Okay, that’s oversimplifying something that’s already been oversimplified. The issue, I guess, is that the problems between the league and the players is fundamentally one of where they both see the roots of their CBA troubles resting: If this were a house, the PA thinks it just needs some renovations and a new coat of paint, and a small group of ultra-hawk owners and apparently Taube want to burn it down for the insurance money. I think we can all agree player costs probably are too high these days, but a rational way to sort that out is to simultaneously roll back the amount teams are allowed to pay them, while also honoring whatever funds are owed them on their current deals. Owners don’t see it that way, thus the lockout. Of course, he thinks the primary issue is hockey-related revenues shared between owners and players but that’s frankly not the case, and that’s without discussing the ways in which revenues are better shared with teams in struggling markets, which is a whole different can of worms.
Owners — and again, let’s assume we’re talking about all of them — pulling out of the league would face problems outside of arena deals, to put things mildly. “Most players wouldn’t need to be enticed to stay with their respective clubs. Most would automatically make the switch, as the new league would still be the biggest and best-paying game in town,” Taube writes for some reason. The issue of course wouldn’t be that there’d be a chance NHL players would jump to other leagues, it’s that every single one would be a free agent. Sid Crosby, free agent. Steven Stamkos, free agent. Ilya Bryzgalov, bad example. Instead of worrying about teams like CSKA poaching top players, they’d have to worry about the friggin’ Maple Leafs doing it. And that’s just one reason none of this makes even the slightest bit of sense. I mean, unless they build a provision into the new league’s CBA with whatever players’ association rises like a
Glendale Phoenix from the ashes of the NHLPA that says contracted players stay with their own teams unless they don’t want them any more, and at that point why not just all stay in the N… oh forget it.
The simplest way to break this down is that Taube believes the players have gotten a sweet ride, and unlike some of even the baldest-faced supporters of ownership in this lockout, doesn’t seem to have the slightest understanding of either the previous CBA or the issues at hand in the current one. To continue with the house analogy — or actually, call it an entire housing project, just to go full-on Randian here — you can’t blow something up “to bits,” as Taube puts it, just because it doesn’t fit the idealized version that allows every owner to make money on the backs of the players’ sacrifices.
You know how you know this is a truly and deeply stupid idea? Jeremy Jacobs and Murray Edwards met with players for hours yesterday and even that couldn’t prevent both sides from believing they made progress. Unless they talked about blowing up the league, I guess.