The NHL’s free agent frenzy has rolled on as usual this summer. Some 78 new contracts had been handed out in the first three days since the signing period began on July 1, and the biggest deals have not even gone down with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter still weighing multiple offers higher than the GNPs of some small countries.
On the surface, it’s business as usual in the NHL for this time of year. But this is no ordinary year, and the business concerns are more pressing than ever.
The league’s collective bargaining agreement is set to expire on Sept. 15. That CBA didn’t come about until an owner’s lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season and nearly destroyed the league. Since the league reopened its doors in 2005, the NHL has slowly and steadily recovered and now stands stronger than ever, with seven straight seasons of record revenues culminating in what commissioner Gary Bettman revealed during the Stanley Cup Final to be $3.3 billion raked in during the 2011-12 season.
Still, both the owners and the NHL Players’ Association, whose negotiating teams finally began talks last Friday and will reportedly meet again this Thursday and Friday, have to know that the sport cannot withstand another extended work stoppage. A stoppage of any length could be catastrophic. The fans returned after the first cancellation of an entire season by a major sports league. With more options than ever competing for the public’s entertainment dollars and an economy that is still sputtering, can those fans really be counted on to return again if the owners slam the doors shut once more?
Baseball appears to have learned that lesson. That sport struggled mightily to overcome the backlash from the players strike that cost the game the 1994 World Series. But Major League Baseball has recovered, if not all the way back to former prominence as the national pastime thanks to the rise of the NFL, then at least to a thriving business enjoying record profits.
That sport’s labor peace over the last 18 years has played a big role in the recovery, and there’s a common thread here with the NHL. Donald Fehr led the MLBPA during that strike and his ascension to the top position in the NHLPA in December 2010 was viewed by many as a precursor to more labor strife in hockey.
Such alarmism is unwarranted, however. Fehr, more than anyone, understands the costs of a work stoppage from his experience in 1994, and helped usher in baseball’s current era of labor peace with new CBAs signed on his watch without any stoppages in 2002 and 2006. While the NFL and NBA suffered through lockouts of their own in the past year, baseball quietly signed another CBA with little rancor this past November.
Fehr isn’t the boogeyman threatening to bring about a labor armageddon in hockey. Instead, he might just be the kind of experienced leader capable of keeping the players united to earn a fair and equitable deal and avoid such a dreaded scenario.
The players made huge concessions in the least labor deal, agreeing not only to a hard salary cap, but also a 24 percent rollback of existing contracts and an escrow system that holds back a further chunk of their salaries. Asking for the players to submit to another round of significant concessions would be unreasonable, especially with the current health of the league.
“Hockey is doing a lot better now. The best thing to do is work as partners and not against each other,” San Jose Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray, a Cornell University graduate and member of the NHLPA negotiating committee, told the San Jose Mercury News on Tuesday. “But the last agreement, we took a big hit. I’m pretty sure no player wants to give up anything like that this time around.”
They shouldn’t have to. That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues to be worked out and compromises to be made by both sides. The owners may look for changes to the cap floor to help smaller market teams struggling to meet the minimum as the cap ceiling has climbed from $39 million in its first year to $70.2 million this summer. There will be haggling over the percentage of league revenues that should go toward player salaries and perhaps discussions on limiting the length of contracts. Other issues dealing with the league’s disciplinary system, realignment and participation in the Olympics will likely be on the table as well.
Finding common ground on those issues won’t be easy. But there is no alternative. Hockey cannot go through another work stoppage, and both sides know that. The stakes are too high now. That very recovery the league has enjoyed in the past seven years of the last CBA should be enough to reign in even the most ardent hawks of either side.
This isn’t 2004 all over again. The league is not in financial peril, at least not unless it allows these labor talks to fail. Business is thriving in the NHL. There’s too much money to be lost in another lockout. If a sense of partnership and common interest between the owners and players isn’t enough to guarantee that, plain old greed should be. And what’s more powerful in America (and its friendly neighbor to the North) than greed?
Gordon Gekko‘s famous Wall Street speech aside, greed is rarely good. But this may be the exception. Greed may be hockey’s best chance to avoid another catastrophe. And there’s 3.3 billion reasons to hope that will be enough to ensure NHL arenas will be opening their doors on time this fall.