Skip to main content

In March of 1983, the NBA and its players inked a collective agreement that included the first salary cap in the modern era and a revenue split that escalated to 57 per cent in favour of the players. If that figure sounds vaguely familiar to hockey fans, it should; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was one of the lawyers who worked on the NBA cap.Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press

Since you ask, the origins of this mess can probably be traced back to The Gipper.

Well, not the real George Gipp, the Notre Dame football star who died in 1920, but a fellow who memorably played him on film in 1940: Ronald Reagan.

Four decades later Reagan, then occupying the White House, sacked 11,000 striking air traffic controllers at a stroke. You can plausibly draw a dotted line from the summer of 1981 to the serial lockouts of the past 17 months that have left fans of the NFL, NBA and now NHL watching blank screens where their favourite team's specialty channel used to be.

Last year, the filmmaker and lefty agitator Michael Moore wrote a piece on the 30th anniversary of the airport controller affair with the hyperbolic title The Day the Middle Class Died, marking the affair as the start of what has turned into a fretful, multidecade slide for the North American labour movement.

The latter observation isn't a partisan one – few would contest it – and in some ways the decline has been mirrored in the major professional sports unions. Since the zenith of the 1980s and '90s, the owners have broadly gained the upper hand (with the notable exception of baseball, more on that later).

Nowadays unions in all industries mostly play defence in collective negotiations, and there's no reason why it should be any different when the members are millionaires. So what does all this mean for hockey fans, whose angst will be especially palpable as they mark Oct. 11 – what should have been the opening night of the season?

Predictions are always iffy, but if the current conflict follows the 2011 scripts from the NFL and NBA – which like the current NHL lockout were fundamentally about divvying up a giant pot of cash – it will end after four or five months, when the two sides find a face-saving compromise that slightly favours the owners.

"In a salary-cap environment, the discussion is always the same," said Rodney Fort, an economics professor at the University of Michigan and an authority on the business of sports. "But unlike 2004-05 [the last NHL lockout], both sides have something to lose this time."

Fort likes to characterize modern sports contract talks as a "Popsicle game," which is why he's bullish on the prospect of a shortish impasse in hockey.

If you watch a couple of kids squabble over a Popsicle and no one intervenes, Fort said, the solution often isn't long in coming.

"They'll usually just break it in half," he said. "They understand that if it melts while they argue about it, no one gets any. Now the NHL and the NHLPA are going to let the Popsicle melt a little."

The current NHL stalemate – pitting a league that wants hefty financial concessions against a union that's sick of yielding ground – is part of a broader trend, and to understand where it fits along the continuum, a history primer is in order.

About six weeks before Reagan did in the controllers, the Major League Baseball Players' Association marked a North American first by walking out in the middle of the season over the owners' desire to clamp severe restrictions on free agency. They stayed out for 63 days, winning several concessions.

The next year, the NFL's players followed suit, walking off the job Sept. 21, and remained on the picket line for 57 days, although their strike was less successful (the key demand, 55 per cent of revenues, went unfulfilled).

And in March of 1983, the NBA and its players crossed the Rubicon, inking a collective agreement that included the first salary cap in the modern era and a revenue split that escalated to 57 per cent in favour of the players.

If that figure sounds vaguely familiar to hockey fans, it should; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was one of the lawyers who worked on the NBA cap.

In 1987, tension flared again in the NFL as the players hit the bricks three weeks into the season. The 24-day disruption will forever be remembered for three weekends of inept replacement players. That strike didn't work out so well for the players either, but it did lead to a series of court cases and a "great compromise" in 1993, which came with a salary cap and increased revenue sharing.

The next year, the NHL declared a lockout – leading to a player-friendly settlement – and in the summer baseball players struck again, wiping out the World Series for the first time and mostly trouncing the owners when the dispute was settled.

It's been a downward spiral for most player unions since then.

The NBA won further concessions from its players after a 204-day lockout in 1998-99, and in 2004, after a 310-day work stoppage, Bettman got his long-sought cap, broadly considered the most draconian in major sports.

In 2011, lengthy football and basketball lockouts saw both player unions accept a sizable cut in revenue splits.

Now, the NHL's owners hope, it's hockey's turn.

But the funny thing about working under a cap system is the rules required to keep a lid on salaries make it more complicated to negotiate.

"You'd expect that with a maturing, highly structured industry," said Norman O'Reilly, who teaches sports business at the University of Ottawa and has written extensively about the NHL's financial model. "The issue becomes a financial one and nothing else, and that limits the number of things that either side is willing to give up to reach their goal."

That doesn't fully explain why player unions have found themselves making concessions even as revenues explode and set records.

Some suggest the players are hobbled by a lack of sophistication when it comes to negotiating and choosing labour leaders. (The less politic phrasing: They're a bit dim.) "That's a myth," O'Reilly said.

Another theory is based on the idea that pro athletes are more preoccupied than ever with short-term concerns because the average career is shorter than the life of a contract.

"Maybe," Fort said. "Another explanation is that, by and large, these unions aren't run by the rank and file, they're run by stars."

Star players, it needn't be pointed out, can afford to be less militant.

More fundamentally, players in all the major sports make more on average than they've ever made, and the people who write the cheques want more money.

Fort said that from a historical perspective, the untold story is the relative labour peace that has attended the major structural shifts in pro sports.

"In all of these sports, we're in a much more predictable and much more descriptive labour relations situation," he said. "Where there's a cap, you have to sit down all the time to revisit the issue of 'is the cap just right?'"

There is one major North American sport that doesn't worry about such considerations: Major League Baseball.

There hasn't been a work stoppage since the 1994 strike – a traumatic event that resulted in depressed attendance figures for almost four years.

And last year, as the NFL and NBA imposed lockouts, MLB and its union agreed to a new five-year contract (albeit one in which the players made concessions that have negative implications for small-market teams, rookies and overseas players).

Crucially for the baseball players, however, there's still no salary cap, just a far less restrictive luxury tax coupled with a generous revenue-sharing scheme. Credit goes to current NHLPA head Donald Fehr, who led the MLB players for two decades.

So what's the secret to baseball's comparative labour peace?

"Baseball is stable because the players have all the power, and they know it," Fort said.

There are a couple of reasons why that's not strictly true of hockey.

The first is scale. The NHL is the puniest of the major sports leagues in terms of revenue and sponsorship. There are also historical factors. Baseball was the first sport to pay astronomical salaries, so baseball players tend to be the richest and, Fort said, are able to cope financially with long work stoppages.

Finally, there are cultural and systemic reasons.

The prototypical hockey player badly wants to play, and extreme eagerness in this context isn't always a good thing. Hockey is also less than a decade removed from a situation Fort describes as unique in sport: In 2004, the NHL was hemorrhaging money, with inflating salaries, basket-case franchises, meagre sponsorship revenues, no television deal and no prospects of one.

"I can't think of a more perfect storm," he said.

Fort disagrees with the notion, then, that there's been a general and gradual shift in the balance of power in hockey. He points to 2004 as a decisive, pivotal moment for the NHL.

One of the key lessons to emerge out of the lost season, from the owners' perspective at least, is that the fans will always return.

The players also drew a meaningful conclusion from that episode: The price of disunity is steep, which is why they stand forcefully behind Fehr, the most redoubtable negotiating partner Bettman has ever had.

So here we are.

The NHL and its players sit, arms crossed, waiting for the other to make the first move.

And the Popsicle has officially started to melt.