The L Word: Why I don’t think we will see another lockout

Cold Hard Cash, bitches

Cold hard cash, bitches

The big fear for hockey fans is another lockout on the scale of the one we saw in 2004. The secret hope is a lockout on the scale of the NBA this year, or the NHL in 1995, or even better yet, the NFL before this previous season. The fans are practically salivating for the loss of a few games.

Sounds insane, right? Who would want something like that? Oh, you know, the cynics, and they are everywhere. They think the system is doomed, that the two sides will never come together. They keep a number in their heads, and if that number isn’t brought up in every report, they scream to the heavens that we won’t see hockey in October.

Color me an optimist, but I don’t think there will be a lockout. I will concede that there may be a loss of preseason, but I would hardly consider that a loss. Losing the preseason is like losing a limp. Sure, you technically lose something, but really, you get something in return.  We don’t need the preseason as it stands, but that’s for another post some day.

The two sides are meeting, and they are saying the right things, such as (via NHL.com):

“They’ve been positive,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said of the meetings. “They’ve been constructive. They’ve been cordial.”

and (via NHLPA.com):

“We had a meeting for the better part of three hours. A lot of different issues were discussed,” said NHLPA Executive Director, Don Fehr. “The meeting was business-like and appropriate and we’ve got another one scheduled for Friday.”

Which is pretty much what you would expect. Neither side will be saying much, and leaks will be few and far between. With every word being scrutinized, don’t expect a lot of news while things are still friendly. This isn’t the Bob Goodenow-led NHLPA either. I don’t see this being played out in the court of the press and public the way the last CBA was. I’m not sure either side would come away unscathed in that situation.

What other people see as the end times for the 2012-13 season, I see as simple negotiating. There are things that needed to happen to legally start the negotiation, and when those actions were taken, the emo hockey fans among us danced the lockout dance, which looks nothing like the safety dance, but is very similar to posting “First!” in a comment thread while swaying back and forth in the middle of the club, wondering why no one understands you..

Myself? If I’m going to dance, I’ll be doing the fishstick. I don’t see anything that is going to completely derail the talks, regardless of the teeth gnashing. Simply put, there isn’t enough there to make the prospect of losing another season worth it to either side.

Philosophical Differences Aside

The 2004-05 lockout happened for one simple reason: the player market, and where either side thought it should go. The players didn’t want a salary cap, the owners did. In fact, without a cap, the owners claimed they would be out of business and quickly. They needed cost certainty. We can debate the need for cost certainty when nearly every business in the world operates without one, but I agree that without a salary cap, the NHL would look different than it does today (and I believe for the worse).  It was a fundamental difference that wasn’t going to go away.

Of course, the cap is now in place, and still the owners spend and spend, but they do have their cost certainty, and that’s the point really. We, the fans, see the owners and GMs doing things like paying $196 over 13 years for two free agents and say the owners need saving from themselves, but that isn’t the right way to look at it. The owners didn’t ask for the guarantee of profit (even if they kind of were). They wanted cost certainty, which is different. Now, years later, they need to adjust the numbers.

The players have made out well. They have plenty of advantages that you never hear about when it’s time to talk about contracts. The players have the advantage of using agents, who can play one side against the other until the ink on a contract is dry. If the owners talk about players with each other, it’s collusion. Fair? Sure, that is just the way it works.

While we keep thinking the owners need saving, they know what they are getting into. They understand that sports is a business where you can lose money, and probably will. They know how much they have to play with, and are smart enough (most of the time) to stick to a budget of some sort. It may not look like it from the outside, but that’s what you get when you are on the outside – a murky picture at best.

The Value of a Lockout

The 2004-05 lockout was worth it in the end to the owners. It’s easy to see why, when you look at the numbers. According to The Player, the anonymous NHL player who writes occasionally for Puck Daddy:

In 2003-2004, the final season before the lockout, players’ salaries ate up about 74 percent of all the revenue generated by the NHL. In that year, the business was worth about $2 billion.

Now, I’m no fancy math doctor, but that works out to around $1,480,000,000, which in technical terms is a f!$@#load of money. A league of thirty teams isn’t going to last long on $520 million dollars (and no, I can’t believe I just typed that either). Now the salary floor in the NHL is higher than the first salary cap, and not by a small amount. Simply put, what was good for the goose turned out good for the gander.

This current CBA negotiation isn’t about rolling salaries back 24%. This isn’t about not closing the doors on a few franchises without massive changes. This isn’t a grand new experiment at the possible expense of the players. This is only about a few percentage points.

What I would ask for

So while everything is on the table, what should be included in the new CBA. What should the players and owners be looking for?

For the owners:

Roll back salaries 10%.
Get the cap to a 50/50 split.
Take a few more dollars away from rookie contracts (because rookies, who can’t defend themselves in negotiations, are easy targets, and will always lose to the rest of the players).
Term limits on contracts (8 years max).
Maximum and minimum of how much a contract can go up or down from year to year (no more massively front loaded contracts).
A lower cap floor.

For the players:

Lose as few percentage points as possible (they will lose a few percent, but in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t going to be such a terrible thing).
More participation in league decisions, like realignment, playoff format, and rules (remember the “partnership of the last CBA?).
A more workable revenue sharing model.
Reduced escrow.
Better post-retirement benefits (because why not).

OK, two things there. First, it wouldn’t seem within in the realm of the players to deal with revenue sharing. But a more even or larger amount of revenue sharing would allow other poorer teams to spend a little more on salaries, which is in the interest of the players. And it helps the teams stay in business, which means more jobs for more players.  Losing two to four teams may make sense in some circles, but that’s a lot of players out of work (especially when you start looking at minor league systems), and that is of concern to the NHLPA.

Second, the owners need the maximum and minimum contract fluctuations more than they need contract term limits. Keeping players and agents from exploiting the CBA to get a team to pony up more Kovalbucks will keep teams from signing super long-term deals anyways. This contract style may or may not have started in a GMs office, but once it got out, it was a tool for agents. Keep this at bay, and you have a more viable solution for reasonable contracts than even getting a few percentage points back. I would be gunning for this more than anything, were I an owner.

Keep in Mind:

This is a negotiation. No one is going to get everything they want out of it. Even though the owners got a lot in the last CBA, they didn’t get everything. That’s just how it goes.

And I will bank on my optimism any day of the week before blindly expecting the next lockout. It’s more fun to look forward to more hockey than to sing another goth song about it.