As per the usual, both sides of the NHL’s labour cold war are trying to scrabble up to the moral high ground. And just as per the usual, everyone comes out of this looking more ridiculous than grasping. But still pretty grasping.
What is it with the NHL, the NHL Players’ Association and money? They’re one of those couples who split up because they never talked about their finances and spent the whole marriage arguing about who spends what. Except this metaphoric pair has divorced and got back together about a half-dozen times, and keep running into the same communication wall.
Every one of the pile of stories and columns about the NHL’s money problems feels compelled to go back through the numbers, as though this were an accounting problem. It is not. It is a sociological problem. The NHLPA is in the midst of demonstrating the tragedy of the commons.
The shared resource in this case is money. NHL players operate in a quasi-socialist system. Some make more than others, but everyone shares out of a predetermined pot, first, via the salary cap, and second, via all the monies earned by the league. By contract, the players get half of that.
These systems were built to create cost certainty for club owners. An ancillary benefit is that they protect the players from each other’s worst instincts. It stops an Auston Matthews from demanding a salary so onerous that no one else on the team can make a living wage. Peer pressure rather than contract language keeps everyone’s demands reasonable. That understanding is in the midst of breaking down.
Without fans in attendance, there will be less money to go around this year. Maybe half as much as usual. It will still be an absolute ton by your standards or mine. The average Canadian lives for a year on what a Leafs’ third-line centre makes in an evening. But it’ll be less than NHL players are used to, which is the only measuring stick they use.
The logical thing to do in a resource crisis is to use less of the resource. This is a difficult proposition if your business is, say, ditch digging. The ditch diggers need that money to live. But you can do it in a professional sports league, where a pay cut is the difference between a fleet of Porsches and just the one.
Instead, the NHLPA proposes to grab as much as it can right now of this shared and vanishing resource. Its argument boils down to ‘BUT YOU SAID WE COULD’. It seems impervious to the idea that you can’t arbitrarily turn a 50/50 partnership into a 70/30 partnership because no one told you stocks go down as well as up.
Remember – we are not arguing about who gets what. That is already decided. It’s 50/50 of whatever is earned. What we are arguing is who gets what when.
Today’s NHL players want to shift the debt burden onto their colleagues of tomorrow. The guys making big money right now are proposing that fewer of their union brothers will get the same advantage in two or three years’ time.
The losers in that system are the NHL’s middle class and working class. Connor McDavid will make Connor McDavid money, no matter how bad it gets. But the non-superstar will get hosed. His million or million-and-a-half bucks a year will become a few hundred grand under a significantly reduced salary cap.
If you’re being charitable, the players are gambling that the NHL will rebound in a big way once COVID-19 is in the rearview. In fairness, that is what happened after each season or portion thereof lost to labour squabbling. If the business booms, today’s shortfalls will be made up by tomorrow’s growth. Everyone will continue to get fat and happy.
If you’re being uncharitable, the players haven’t thought any further than, “Money. Gimme. Mine. Money.”
Neither scenario contemplates another, very possible reality – that hockey may not experience the same rate of growth it had become used to for some time, or ever.
One way or t’other, the players already know they will lose this fight. Why? Because they always do. I don’t care what kind of a genius NHLPA boss Donald Fehr is. He’s still coaching the Washington Generals of labour collectives. The players will find a way to screw this up. They’re already doing it.
Week by week, they lose more games, which means more money, which creates a new level of pain when the league inevitably asks that salaries they once proposed to defer they now want cut permanently via prorating.
You wanted to play only 48 games, smart guy? Fine. You still defer money, but now on 48 games worth of pay.
You won’t accept 48 games worth of pay? Fine. We cancel the season and give you 0 games worth of pay.
You want to go to court? Fine. I’m not sure what ‘going to court’ pays, but I believe it’s a hell of a lot less than 0 games worth of pay.
It’s important to remind ourselves who wants what here. The players want to play as much of a season as possible, thereby earning as much as possible. A small but significant slice of ownership would like to skip this season, save a few ducats and start again in October. The rest want to shorten the regular season as much as possible.
So who would you say is winning?
Yet it’s the players who have dropped to the floor in the middle of the negotiation supermarket and started thrashing about. They’re the ones suggesting that a season that might’ve started around Christmas will now start in January. Or maybe February. Or they dare you to make it March. They double-dare you.
It would be hard to credit such ambitious boneheadedness if we hadn’t already seen it in action in 2012, and 2004, and 1994 and …
The players can still spare themselves some pain and embarrassment by just going along with whatever proposal they are being given by the league. Be a pebble in the river.
The money will sort itself out, eventually. If there is a debt owing, it will be paid. Whatever happens, everyone involved will continue to be rich. Their successors will be rich. The ecosystem they helped create will thrive again. All will be good in the kingdom.
But no. Instead of protecting the cash harvest, the NHLPA is out there scything for all it is worth, cutting everything to the ground. The players will eat today. Tomorrow? That’s tomorrow’s problem.