Whenever it ends – in a week or a month or a year – I am prepared, like Fox News on election day, to declare a winner in the NHL lockout without even seeing the final collective agreement.
The players will win.
The players will win because the players always win.
The players won in 1994-95, even if the consensus was they lost by surrendering to a punitive rookie salary cap and other major concessions.
The players won in 2004-05, even though the consensus was that by agreeing to a hard salary cap, they got clobbered by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at the negotiating table.
The players will win because the minute the ink is dry on a new collective agreement, agents and general managers will find clever ways to circumvent the spirit and language of the new deal.
This is the unchanging way of the NHL world, where 30 teams annually compete for one prize. Team owners get frustrated by losing and eventually instruct the people who work for them to do whatever it takes to stop losing.
So you get a situation where, in the 1990s, the Boston Bruins discovered the loophole that killed that collective agreement. The Bruins – run by a notoriously tough bargainer, Harry Sinden – devised a complicated system of paying high-end entry-level players a series of A and B schedule bonuses that virtually quadrupled their salaries. Contracts for Sergei Samsonov and Joe Thornton became the model for other clubs to skirt a system that was supposed to keep salaries down in the early stages of every player's career.
In the 2000s, the Columbus Blue Jackets killed the entry-level system and all its prohibitive restrictions by signing Rick Nash to a second contract worth $27-million (all currency U.S.) over five years, a practice that eventually brought riches to all the top players in that category.
The Detroit Red Wings started the process of signing players to long-term contracts (Johan Franzen, Henrik Zetterberg) to mitigate the effects of their annual salary-cap charge. Others hopped on that bandwagon until the New Jersey Devils gave Ilya Kovalchuk a 17-year deal two summers ago and the NHL said enough. The league kicked the contract back on the grounds that it was a blatant attempt to circumvent the salary cap. In many respects, that contract got the league to where it is today – stuck on an issue, contract length, that threatens to undermine the 2012-13 season.
The point is this: Whatever language Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly come up with in the next collective agreement, whatever restrictions they impose, whatever they do to regulate a system designed to keep the playing field relatively even, it won't matter.
Teams will find a way to get around them. They always have. They always will.
That's not going to stop Bettman and Daly from trying to plug the most costly and egregious loopholes. It's simply their way of trying to protect the owners from themselves, and the main reason Daly described contract term limits as "the hill we will die on" as negotiations ground to a halt again.
Long-term deals were a here-and-now style of contract that gained popularity over the past two summers and resulted in some curious imbalances – Christian Ehrhoff earning $12-million last year from the Buffalo Sabres, James Wisniewski earning $7-million from the Columbus Blue Jackets. If the NHL were playing this season, the second-highest paid player in the game (tied with three others) would be Sabres defenceman Tyler Myers, because the first year of a seven-year, $38.7-million contract is valued at $12-million.
The league saw how this practice of front-loading long-term contracts evolved in the past 24 months, how it skewed NHL payrolls, and wants it stopped.
In the end, though, all Daly can do is play the part of the Little Dutch Boy in these negotiations. He can plug all the holes in the dam gushing out cash to the players, but he can't anticipate where the next crack may develop, or how costly it will eventually be.
When the witching hour does finally arrive, some time after Jan. 15, there will be one more push for a deal, likely in private, likely between Daly and Steve Fehr, the No. 2 man in the National Hockey League Players' Association. Then it'll be a flip of the coin. It'll be 50-50. It could go either way. Deal or no deal.
In 1994-95, the two sides settled and played a moderately interesting 48-game season. It wasn't a perfect agreement, but the two sides salvaged 60 per cent of salaries and revenues, plus an undetermined amount of goodwill.
In 2004-05, the opposite occurred. The two sides failed to come to an agreement and a full year of salaries and revenues was lost.
Either way, the outcome will be unchanged. The players win. No matter how many Band-Aids the owners may slap on a new collective agreement, they'll start spending like a Kardashian at Christmas as soon as they get the green light.
And that's a prediction you can take to the bank.