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  • Owners' hypocrisy looms over NHL lockout Print
    Columns
    Written by Blake Benzel   
    Monday, 17 September 2012 21:59

    With the NHL lockout in full swing and no end in sight, the owners of the 30 NHL franchises have nothing to blame for the third lockout since 1994 but their own hypocrisy. 

    Blake BenzelWhen it was all said and done, after all of the press conferences leading up to Sept. 15, the lockout came not with a bang, but with a whimper.

    At 11:59 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, the NHL locked out its players for the second time in seven years and, for all intents and purposes, it appears to be something that could have easily been avoided.

    The sad truth of this lockout is that there is one side to blame, and it's the league and the owners.

    True, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman shoulders much of the venom coming from the fans, and some coming from the players as well. By locking out the players, Bettman ensured that the league would have its fourth work stoppage of his term as commissioner – not necessarily a feat that one strives for, to be sure – but he has also presided over one of the most successful periods in recent memory for the league.

    True, the players seemed to avoid negotiations like the plague during the season, waiting until one month before the current Collective Bargaining Agreement was to expire before opening negotiations with the NHL. But one can hardly blame many of them for not wanting to negotiate and become distracted from their ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup during the season.

    True, the owners asked the players to take a 24% paycut – a figure that no union in their right mind would have accepted – but, with teams supposedly bleeding money, you can hardly blame the owners for wanting to cut spending.

    On the surface, it would appear that just about everyone is at fault, but looking deeper shows just how bizarre the days leading up to this lockout were.

    On Sept. 14 and 15, 14 players signed extensions or free agent contracts that were not entry-level deals. These contracts were for an average of 3.6 years, with an average salary of approximately 3.45 million per season. All told, a handful of teams spent over $200 million on contracts in just two days time according to Capgeek.com, all while the unified front for the league was to cut spending.

    If you’re thinking that this rash of spending in the days prior to the lockout doesn’t make much sense, you’re not alone. Indeed, ten teams spending over $200 million on contracts flies in the face of reason when owners are claiming that they want to cut spending.

    The teams’ justification, however, is that they would be unable to negotiate with these players during the lockout.

    “I think with the uncertainty, what it does is it removed one additional piece,” Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier told the National Post of the team’s signing of Tyler Ennis to an extension. “Whenever it is we start, Tyler’s signed and ready to go, and it’s not something that you’re going to be pressed into action and negotiating while you’re trying toprepare for a season.”

    While it is a valid excuse, it also rings as being a bit convenient. After all, the very same owners that are calling for a 24 percent paycut, as well as put new restrictions on contracts, free agency and arbitration are the ones who were approving these big deals prior to the league locking its doors.

    Of course, all of these ideas are thrown out the window when it comes to making signings that would improve your team.

    The owner of the Minnesota Wild Craig Leipold cried poor last season before signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts. The Phoenix Coyotes, the league’s most embattled team, just locked up 35-year-old Shane Doan for four years at $5.3 million per year.

    The hypocrisy of the situation is deafening.

    The very owners that are taking full advantage of the now past collective bargaining agreement are now seeking a new one to safeguard them from themselves.

    When you look at it from that perspective, it’s very hard to blame the players in all of this.

    Sure, they’re the ones that put off negotiating until the season was finished. But can you blame them? Who would want to try to do their job in the midst of what were sure to be acrimonious labor talks? Certainly no player would have wanted that distraction while trying to perform at the top of their game. At best, they can be blamed for not starting labor talks the moment that the Los Angeles Kings hoisted the Stanley Cup.

    But instead of the players coming off as greedy, they’re downright sympathetic this time around.

    First of all, they’re the ones being threatened with yet another 24 percent paycut (the same number that they accepted during the 2004-05 lockout). While you may look at this and think, “Poor them, they’re millionaires,” consider that the number of players that make the top-end money and are almost certain to be guaranteed a spot in the league for seasons and seasons to come are a mere handful compared to the amount of players that the league actually has. Most players that are in the NHL have no guaranteed spot on an NHL roster. They have to earn every bit of their salaries and will be in the league for four or five years, at best.

    The focus of this paycut isn’t the Shea Webers and Zach Parises of the league. The focus is the Drew Millers and Steve Emingers. It’s not how a 24 percent rollback will affect players who are set to make $14 million this coming season. It’s how a 24 percent roll back will affect the players who make $750,000.

    Second, the players are pushing for improved revenue sharing between the teams.

    “I think in this last system, everyone’s been able to grow the game,” Flyers defenseman Braydon Coburn told Journalregister.com. “The game’s at the most exciting point it’s ever been. The speed, the competitiveness, the parity around the league. … But you have some teams that I’m sure need help. The thing is, the players are willing to partner with the top-end clubs to make those teams healthy and hopefully help grow out of their problems.”

    The topic of revenue sharing between teams has been a contentious topic, with Donald Fehr even mentioning that the league's richer teams are unwilling to aid struggling teams through significant, meaningful and innovative revenue sharing.

    What rings most about Coburn’s statement is what isn’t said, but implied – that the owners simply aren’t willing to do that. Indeed, the topic of revenue sharing between teams has been a contentious topic, with Donald Fehr even mentioning that the league’s richer teams are not willing to aid the teams struggling through significant, meaningful and innovative revenue sharing.

    Indeed, there is something that rings true in the idea that top-end clubs should help share the burden for the smaller market teams. It’s how it works in the MLB, and their labor negotiations have gone off without a hitch since their last work stoppage in 1994. Revenue sharing spreads the burden around the league which, as Coburn pointed out, would allow the smaller market teams to work their way out of their financial woes. It’s a win-win situation for the league, but for whatever reason the owners are unwilling to increase the amount of revenue that is shared between larger and smaller market teams, despite the fact that the league is bringing in unprecedented revenue.

    So, to recap, the owners want out of the last collective bargaining agreement that helped grow the league’s annual revenue to $3.3 billion, would like the players to take a massive pay cut in the face of this increased revenue, want to try and find a way out of the massively inflated contracts that they approved in the first place and seem unwilling to spread the wealth among the poorer teams, all for the betterment of the league.

    All of that, and they refused to come to the table in an 11th-hour bargaining session asked for by the NHLPA on Saturday night.
    The only reason that the league could have had to not continue negotiations is that they are trying to play hardball. The league’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly said, “We talked to the union this morning, and in light of the fact that they have nothing new to offer, or any substantive response to our last proposal, there would be nothing gained by convening a bargaining session at this time.”

    So, let me get this straight. With a lockout looming, nothing could be gained by the two sides meeting?

    If that doesn’t scream that the owners wanted exactly this to happen, I don’t know what does. In fact, according to the NHLPA’s special counsel Steve Fehr, “The NHL said that it saw no purpose in having a formal meeting.”

    But why would the owners have anything to gain from a lockout? Look no further than their figurehead, Gary Bettman, who said that the league’s latest offer which would have rolled back the share of hockey-related revenue to 47 percent for the players was now off the table because of the “hardship” caused by a lockout.

    A hardship created by the owners’ unwillingness to hold consistent negotiations.

    It would stand to reason that the two sides are much closer together this time than they were at this point in 2004. There are no real philosophical differences over any hot button issues, like the salary cap. Instead, it’s all about dollars and cents and divvying up the extra money made under the just-expired deal.

    Unfortunately, while it’s all about dollars and cents, the league’s owners simply aren’t making sense, which is exactly why we are now stuck without hockey for the foreseeable future.
     
    You can follow us on Twitter @HockeyPrimetime and Blake @HPTbcbenzel

    Photos by Getty Images




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    Last Updated on Monday, 17 September 2012 23:39