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NHL lockout

Is divvying up a $3.35-billion hockey pie really that hard? Add to ...

Fifty-one floors below the head offices of the NHL, the NHL Reebok store is strangely empty.

October is in the air – hockey usually would be, as well – and New York’s Avenue of the Americas is thick with strollers and shoppers. Precious few, however, are venturing into this store that caters exclusively to a game that isn’t on.

Dissecting the lockout

Inside the front door there is a massive blow-up of the engravings on the Stanley Cup. “Because you can read it 100 times,” shouts a headline over the photograph, “and still not know how it will end next time.”

Right … and we don’t even know how it will end this time. Or when.

Like the pigeons in the nearby park, the media wait in the streets for crumbs, few of which are ever forthcoming from the barren meetings of the league and the NHL Players’ Association. Earlier this week the two sides were supposedly hammering out some small details – “underbrush,” insiders call it – on a new labour agreement, known as the CBA. From what progress is evident so far – talks recessed on Tuesday, nothing new to report – they may as well have been hammering their heads against the walls of the 15th-floor boardroom in which they met.

The NHL spokesperson this week says the union has shown no willingness to negotiate, refusing to budge from its initial proposal of what feels like several centuries back.

The NHLPA spokesperson counters, saying the players have already given some and that the union is always willing to meet and negotiate.

Both sides, apparently, speak and understand English.

The media scribble this creeping fog down and record the words as if they amount to more than damp air, which of course they do not.

Pucks were scheduled to drop on Oct. 11 to begin the 2012-13 season. On Thursday the league cancelled 82 games – that number, coincidentally, a full season for one of the 30 teams. Some optimists are still predicting hockey by the U.S. Thanksgiving, some – including Wayne Gretzky – by Jan. 1, some never in our lifetime. No one knows.

What is becoming more evident, however, is that both sides wish to have a season, just on their terms. The hockey players would love to continue playing under the same rules that, only a short time ago, were considered rather dramatically in favour of the owners. The owners wish to play under new rules that would balance a system they say has swung dramatically in favour of the players.

How can this be?

All fans of the game know is that owners, by definition, are insanely rich, and players, by mind-boggling contracts handed out by those insane owners, are ridiculously rich. Is divvying up a $3.35-billion pie really that hard?

Everyone from the two Senators from New Jersey to the Premier of British Columbia has been calling for a quick end to an argument that seems to have no grounds, but no one listens to them. In professional hockey these days, the only voice heard is your own.

That the total package of NHL hockey is rich and successful, no one seems to disagree. The average player makes $2.5-million a year – millions more than any small boy with a mini-stick ever imagined possible.

In the seven years since the 2005 CBA supposedly handed clear victory and a salary cap to the owners, parity has ruled the league, with seven different teams winning the Stanley Cup. Only one of the 30 teams has failed to qualify for the playoffs.

The year before the last lockout, the league played to 90-per-cent capacity (an average attendance of 16,517) and now it is 95.6 per cent (17,265 average attendance).

Revenues have grown from $2.2-billion to $3.35-billion (all currency U.S.), with more than two dozen new blue-chip corporate partners signing up. The league has a fabulous 10-year-deal with NBC to broadcast games, the Winter Classic has produced the first thing since Gretzky himself to transcend hockey in the United States, the HBO 24/7 series is a hit.

Revenues and exposure are all predicted to grow impressively, despite these being such tight times for everyone not on skates.

The league’s owners say many of them are still losing money in this sea of gold. They say it costs a fortune to produce a fortune in revenues, and sometimes the former overlaps the latter. Costs have soared since the last agreement – commissioner Gary Bettman says jet fuel alone has risen 175 per cent – and salaries remain a critical issue, despite so many owners throwing so many mind-boggling contracts at so many free agents this summer.

Owners say they take all the risks, players none. As one official puts it, “I don’t see Scott Gomez giving back any of his money.” (Gomez was paid $7.5-million by the Montreal Canadiens to fill a jersey last season.)

Currently NHL players get 57 per cent of revenues, down from more than 70 per cent at the time of the 2004-05 lockout. The league wished to get it down to that roughly half-and-half split owners and players have in professional football and basketball. They offered 43 per cent over the summer. The thinking – perhaps naive, perhaps wrong in hindsight – was that even hockey players could put those numbers, 57 and 43, together and see that compromise would be 50/50.

It didn’t happen.

The error may have been far more psychological than financial. The last lockout ended with owners gloating, the media declaring the league winner and fans just happy to get their game back. Hockey players are supremely competitive alpha males, though, and if they hated being called “losers” last time, they despise even more the possibility of being seen to cave and “lose” this time – even though time has long since proved that they, not the owners, were the true winners in 2005.

These players have to “win” this time. They have a score to even and, so, the result is they and their counsel, led by NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, are not budging from their initial stance, the league saying the players not even counter-offering in the usual spirit of difficult labour negotiations.

The stalemate has already cost the preseason and, league officials estimate, more than $100-million from this season’s expected revenues. Players, says one, should realize that “57 per cent of nothing is nothing.”

The league wants a new deal before the “traction” the NHL brand has gained through NBC and rising attendance and new corporate interest slips, some of which might be lost entirely.

The players want to play, but not under any deal they have so far seen.

As for the Reebok NHL store on Avenue of the Americas, this year’s sign could well turn into next year’s.

With no need to call in an engraver to update the photo of the Stanley Cup.

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