Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why the NHL Lockout is the Same, But Different

By Mike Chen

Here we go again. Or if you prefer, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Whatever cliché you'd like to apply, the NHL's once again in a lockout after many years of shiny NHL press releases claiming record-breaking revenue. But for those of you fearing that the NHLPA and NHL will torpedo another full season, there's reasons to put those fears aside.

Many optimists (myself included) see a regular season starting in November, and while there certainly are those who will poke holes in that theory, this CBA negotiation doesn't seem to come with the vitriol of the lost 2004-05 season.

Of course, it's not all smiles and rainbows. Here are three big reasons why the current NHL lockout is like — and unlike — the 2004-05 lockout. First, let's start with the broken record — why this is just like that nightmare year.

No. 1: It's about money.

Sorry, fans, there's no way around it — it's $3.3 billion that the owners and players both want. As fans, many of us simply can't grasp what it must be like playing Monopoly with that kind of money, but it's the truth. So forget any PR spin you hear from the PA or the owners; this is union/employer negotiation, no matter how you dress it up, and it's simply about money.

No. 2: They're both at fault.

Donald Fehr said that the PA's late start in negotiations (around July) was due to the fact that he was meeting with players and educating them. Sure, there's an element of truth to that, but don't you think he couldn't have multi-tasked by getting preliminary work done? As for the owners, don't you think they could have had a more realistic starting offer than the one they sent out in July? Both sides of this have toyed with time, probably in an effort to try and leverage whatever perceived outside pressure they could.

The bottom line is that the point we're currently at — where the final money split is only a few percentage points away from agreement — could have been achieved months ago if both parties started this in better faith.

No. 3: Expect roster changes when this is settled.

Many teams still have holes to fill, and many unrestricted free agents are still seeking homes. As for that salary cap? Well, there's a good chance that it's going to be a little (or a lot) different from where it was on July 1. That means that when the CBA is settled, there will probably be a flurry of activity. Much of it will simply be unpredictable from today's perspective, as we don't know if there will be a buyout or amnesty clause that forces teams under the cap, or if a new cap system will be grandfathered in.

That's the bad news. The good news? Though the chasm is "wide" (their words, not mine), a lot of that seems to be PR posturing. When you break it down, the biggest hurdle seems to be about details rather than big-picture points. Here are three reasons why this lockout is different from 2004-05 (and that's a good thing).

No. 1: They're talking.

For those of you with long memories, the 2004-05 NHL lockout was a war of attrition — one that featured lengthy periods of time with no communication between parties. Other times, you'd get reports of representatives turning up for meetings and after a few cursory conversations, both sides would leave.

In this year's edition — and perhaps it's just more visible because of the advent of social media — there does seem to be consistent communication between parties, even if Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr aren't directly involved. And while there's certainly a bit of PR spin from both sides, by all reports the mood in the room has been professional and businesslike compared to the 2004-05 talks, which seemed to ooze venom and negativity – Bill Daly himself has even stated that the mood seems different.

No. 2: They're not trying to change the system.

The 2004-05 lockout was about one thing: the salary cap. The rest of the systemic changes were scraps and consolation. The cap itself is a gigantic systemic shift, one that changed things from a completely free marketplace to one with an artificial ceiling designed to slow the cost of goods (which is essentially what the players are in pro sports).

This year, however, everyone seems to know what the end game is — a roughly 50/50 split in revenues between the league and the players. The argument, then, is about how to get there. The league wants an immediate dollars-and-cents change based on escrow and hard percentage shifts. The PA wants a system that's phased in using lowered percentages based on projected revenue growth (don't feel bad if that sentence confuses you).

No. 3: There's agreement on "smaller" issues.

Both the league and the PA have separated CBA talks into "core economic" and "secondary hockey" issues. What this means is that the economics — that is, the actual money and everything related to it — is the point of contention that has stopped forward progress.

However, in parallel, both parties have worked in smaller groups and have reportedly found quite a bit of common ground on the secondary issues. That's important, because if you've ever dared to look at the actual CBA, you'll see that only a fraction of its 454 pages actually deal with core economics. There's just a lot of legalese and operational mumbo-jumbo that the fans either don't know about or don't care about. If many of these have some measure of principle agreement, that means that an actual CBA can come together quicker once the core economics have been agreed upon.

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